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Gilbert Ryle – An Oxford man who advocated “ordinary language”

Gilbert Ryle (1900-76) was an English philosopher who taught at Oxford from 1945-68. He edited the journal Mind from 1947-71.

Ryle and others like G. E. Moore developed the idea, forwarded by Wittgenstein, that philosophy is best expressed in so-called “ordinary language.” For Ryle, using abstract language is so removed from everyday experience and speech that it tends to be, for the most part, inaccurate and irrelevant.

Some philosophers are so heavily invested in their specialized language that they become blind to the ambiguities, limitations and sometimes absurdity of their claims.

A similar argument could be made about anyone who overly invests in a particular language game or symbol system, to include psychologists, biologists, physicists, economists, lawyers, environmentalists… The list goes on.

Not everyone agrees with Ryle. For a while, his views were trendy in philosophy but that didn’t last long. Today, philosophy is even more esoteric and symbolic than ever. Most modern philosophy degrees demand advanced courses in symbolic logic that, to the uninitiated, might look more like math than critical thinking.

Drawing from René Descartes' (1596-1650) in &q...

Drawing from René Descartes’ (1596-1650) in “meditations métaphysiques” explaining the function of the pineal gland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here are some of the main points for and against the use of ordinary language in philosophy and related disciplines:

For:

  • Language is dynamic, full of ambiguous connotation and a product of culture. Meanings are always open to interpretation.
  • Specialized language cloaks bias and subtly reinforces unequal relations of power. For instance, in psychology a person is “ADD” or “Autistic.” The scientific label makes it so. End of discussion. Who cares if these people have unusual abilities that the status quo is too biased to recognize or support?
  • Ordinary language isn’t patronizing to ordinary people and may, in fact, draw them into a discussion. This could lead to new insights and benefits for all.

Against:

  • Given the potential ambiguity and fluidity of language, shouldn’t philosophers try to define their terms as precisely as possible?
  • Isn’t it valid for specialists to use specialized language? For example, do you really want your operating room surgeon to say “give me that blade over there” one day and “hand me the knife” another day instead of always using the quick and precise, “scalpel“?
  • Specialized language increases precision and facilitates greater communication, efficiency and effectiveness among specialists. Popular writers can always translate the main points to the public, later on.

It seems each of these arguments has its pros and cons.

For some, the best approach – ironically an age-old advertising and entertaining technique – is to tailor one’s expression to fit the perceived audience. Instead of speaking above people, some believe it’s better to try to connect—unless, of course, you’re in a specialized group using shared terms (e.g. A Trekkie convention).

Some hard core philosophers seem to overlook the many nuances of human interaction. So they can come off dry, abstract or irrelevant. But every now and then specialized thinkers do come up with ideas worth considering. For me, one example is Hume’s critique of causality. I love and sometimes mention that idea if I feel my audience is ready to consider its transformational potential.

But to return to Ryle, he also published a popular work in 1949, The Concept of Mind, that questioned Descartes mind/body dualism. Ryle says Descartes describes the mind as a metaphysical ghost in a material machine. And from that we have the enduring phrase, “ghost in the machine,” an idea now morphing into new meanings with the rise of AI.


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Bertrand Russell – Temporarily lost his job for advocating peace

Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell (Photo Wikipedia)

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was a Welsh philosopher, mathematician and activist.

Russell taught at Cambridge in 1895, published Principles of Mathematics (1903) and, with A. N. Whitehead, wrote Principia Mathematica (1910-13).

He was let go from Trinity College, Cambridge in 1916 for advocating pacifism during World War I. This was scandalous even at the time because most of his Fellows opposed his firing.¹ Jailed in 1918 for six months, Russell eventually revoked his support for pacifism with the rise of Fascism.

Soon after his Fellowship was restored.

In the 1920’s he lectured and wrote widely. In 1927 he founded an experimental school with his second wife, Dora, a woman of achievement in her own right. And he toured the Soviet Union and lectured in China and America.

Russell’s best known publications are The Problems of Philosophy (1912), On Education (1926), An Enquiry into Meaning and Truth (1940), History of Western Philosophy (1945), and Human Knowledge (1948). He also wrote probing essays on a variety of topics, such as Why I am not a Christian (1927).

After World War II Russell advocated a ban on nuclear weapons and corresponded with leading politicians around the world. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950 and authored a three-volume Autobiography (1967-9).

English: Bertrand Russell and Conway Hall Behi...

Bertrand Russell and Conway Hall Behind bust of Bertrand Russell (by Marcelle Quinton 1980) in Red Lion Square the entrance to Conway Hall can be seen with Royal Mail van parked outside. (Photo: Wikipedia)

¹ Perhaps it’s fitting that I’m posting this revision on Good Friday. Seems a lot of people run into bad luck for advocating peace. †

Related » Ludwig Wittgenstein


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Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Creative genius on the edge

Graeme Garrard traces the origin of the Counte...

Rousseau (Photo: Wikipedia)

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) was a French speaking political writer and educator born in Geneva, Switzerland.

After taking various odd jobs this self-taught intellectual moved to Paris in 1741, meeting up with Denis Diderot and the Encyclopedists.

A kind of romantic naturalism pervades much of his work, which many equate with the idea of the “noble savage.”

Many see the noble savage as one who rejects stultifying conventions and religious promises of an afterlife in favor of spontaneous desire and worldly affections.

But this is another myth that students of Rousseau say does not apply to his work. In reference to Rousseau’s belief in stages of human development, Wikipedia notes:

Rousseau believed that the savage stage was not the first stage of human development, but the third stage. Rousseau held that this third savage stage of human societal development was an optimum, between the extreme of the state of brute animals and animal-like “ape-men” on the one hand and the extreme of decadent civilized life on the other. This has led some critics to attribute to Rousseau the invention of the idea of the noble savage, which Arthur Lovejoy conclusively showed misrepresents Rousseau’s thought.¹

Voltaire & Rousseau

Voltaire & Rousseau by Anne via Flickr

In 1754 Rousseau wrote Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Amongst Men, outlining an apparently innate sense of freedom and perfectibility in human beings, in contrast to the corrupting powers of institutions.

In Luxembourg from 1757-1762 he wrote The Social Contract, which had a significant bearing on the French revolution, as exemplified by Rousseau’s cry for ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.’ The Social Contract produced the famous line, “man is born free, but everywhere is in chains.” This work remains a cornerstone in modern political theory, but has roots in ancient Greece and Rome.

In 1762 Rousseau published the novel, Emile. Its critique of the monarchy and government bureaucracy got him into hot water with the authorities. To avoid arrest he retreated to Switzerland, ultimately to end up in England with the support of the philosopher David Hume.

Rousseau later wrote his Confessions and returned to Paris in 1767, ignoring the threat of an outstanding arrest warrant. He continued to write but became hypersensitive to perceived threats. Some of these threats may have been real and others exaggerated. For instance, he believed that Hume was conspiring against him, which may have been partly true. And Voltaire accused him of burning down the theater at Geneva in 1768.²

Devon Hollahan – Paranoid android via Flickr

Some say that Rousseau was paranoid during this period. But I prefer to think of him as confusing actual and perceived threats.

When people are threatened, possibly traumatized and lied to, and all they have is their intuition to guide them, it’s hardly surprising that they make interpretive mistakes. They sense the bad vibes from others, which are real. But unless they train themselves to treat every perceived threat as a hypothesis instead of a fact, they could become overwhelmed and see some non-threats as threats.³

Rousseau also took some heat for his views on religion, which challenged both Catholic and Calvinist teachings. Rousseau was a precursor to those Romantics who see God in natural creation and society as something other and potentially corrupting. He rejected the belief in original sin and was upset that his views gained much criticism while the religious authorities were indifferent to the atheistic philosophers of the day.4

Related » Enlightenment

The house where Rousseau was born at number 40, Grand-Rue. – Wikipedia

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Jacques_Rousseau

² Ibid. Hume had offered to filter and forward Rousseau’s more important incoming mail, to which Rousseau agreed. But there is some evidence that Hume also read Rousseau’s outgoing mail, which was not agreed upon. This only goes to show that creeps who somehow think they’re justified in violating personal privacy – just because they can – have been around for a very long time. It’s not something unique to the cyber age.

³ Of course, it’s not easy to support or reject these hypotheses because some threatening people are pathological liars and polished fakers. As for those generating the bad vibes, I believe God will deal with them – fairly – in good time.

4 This situation has been tentatively explained by the sociological “in-group / out-group” theory. According the theory, people in an in-group feel more threatened or irritated by an out-group when the out-group shares some but not all of the in-group’s views and practices. So for example, some Americans and Canadians look down on and insult one another because inhabitants share some but not all elements with the other country. But neither Americans nor Canadians become emotionally invested or insulting toward peaceful, faraway lands that are fundamentally different. Most just couldn’t care less. It’s the partial similarity that stirs up discontent between in-groups and out-groups.

 Trump and the ‘Society of the Spectacle’ (3quarksdaily.com)

  New New Left Ideology Controls the Democratic Party (americanthinker.com)

 The Concept of Facts Is Newer Than You Think (time.com)

 Scots sick and tired of Sturgeon’s independence referendum ‘rabble rousing’ (express.co.uk)

 Eurozone economy overtakes UK as France and Germany accelerate (telegraph.co.uk)

 [Nelson Lund] Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Not a nut, not a leftist and not an irresponsible intellectual (washingtonpost.com)


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Representation – A subtle power for good or ill

Radar is a unique type of representation that helps in war and peace

Radar is a unique type of representation used in war and peace

In the literary and artistic sense, representation refers to depicting a psychological, social, natural, political or spiritual idea or condition through language, music, visual art, multimedia, CGI or dance.

In the sciences, abstract ideas like numbers and their interrelationships are represented through numerals and other symbols.¹

In psychology, Carl Jung argues that representation is essential to the healthy growth of the psyche. For him, the conscious ego is like a control center that, through representation, must express and manage the formidable powers of the archetypes of the collective unconscious. Jung believes it is potentially dangerous to not express unconscious attitudes, tendencies and desires in some socially acceptable way.

One of the classic examples of this danger in today’s news would be pedophile priests. These are mostly gay men, not too spiritually aware nor advanced, who have taken a vow of celibacy. They’ve also pledged themselves to God in an organization that says homosexuality is disordered. For Jung, this would be double trouble, involving

  • the harsh repression of physiological impulses for sex
  • a strange, twisted hypocrisy concerning one’s sexual orientation²

No wonder the US Church, alone, has paid out several billions of dollars in sex abuse lawsuits to victims over the past 65 years.

Postmodern thinkers question to what degree representation actually represents and to what degree it creates or colors something. For them, social power comes into play in describing and defining. Representation does not only denote something. It also connotes meanings. Compare the following two sentences:

He had a distinguished career with an Honorary Doctor of Letters from Oxford.

He read and wrote a lot of stuff that people at a British school for continued learning liked, so they added more letters to his name.

These may denote the same thing but they connote very different meanings. Thus we see the power of representation.

A wealthy couple having breakfast via Wikipedia

A wealthy couple having breakfast via Wikipedia

Sociologists like Pierre Bourdieu say that elites use certain terms, ways of speaking and manners to separate themselves from others, and to remind the “lower classes” of their apparent vulgarity and powerlessness. Choice of clothing has the same effect. And funnily enough, the lower classics often buy cheaper, less fine versions of that expensive “look” in a failed attempt to measure up to their apparently elite superiors. Bourdieu calls these non-economic assets that elites possess cultural capital. From head to toe, inside and out, elites have a lot while the lower classes have far less.³

In anthropology, philosophy and theology, the idea of representation has been broken down into

  • first-order sense data, where human beings create an internal representation of something seemingly “out there”4
  • second-order conceptualizations and images

Within Platonic philosophy and the scholastic theology of the Middle Ages, different questions are raised about the possibility of eternal, unchanging essences or ideas that are imperfectly represented in our everyday, impermanent world of change and decay.

With abstract art, some argue that the personality and personal message of the artist may be entirely absent in the representational message of an artwork. Others say this is impossible—that is, the artist, artwork and viewer always exist in some kind of relationship.

To sum, representation is a fascinating phenomenon. In junior high school I once wrote a paper differentiating mankind from animals on the basis of our ability to make tools. But when I hit university I was introduced to the power of language, symbols and signs. And many argue that this representational aspect of mankind is what makes us truly human. For better or for worse, we live in a largely symbolic universe with diverse meanings.5

¹ Most of us don’t think about it too much. But the concept of number as a discrete, definite unit is not as simple as it might seem. See https://www.philosophytalk.org/shows/what-are-numbers and https://welovephilosophy.com/2012/12/17/do-numbers-exist/

² I have no idea about the causes of hetero- and homosexuality. I am just reporting Jung’s view. Non-abusive instances of gay religious may involve a bewildering confusion or secret dual life concerning one’s sexual orientation. Concerning the first bulleted item, some Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit gives brothers, nuns and priests a supernatural gift of celibacy, lifting them to a higher level of operation and giving them power over their natural desires. In reality, though, I don’t think it’s always that clear cut.

³ This is not to say that the economically poor cannot be highly intelligent nor spiritually rich. But I think some religious people create a stereotype about this based on Luke 6:20. Just because someone is poor does not, imo, mean they always have a rich inner life and good ethics. And by the same token, just because someone is rich does not mean they are always cruel, superficial snobs. This is a silly, superficial view in itself, I think based on a particular interpretation of the New Testament.

I say seemingly “out there” because solipsism suggests we cannot prove the reality of anything beyond our own internal experience. I don’t agree with taking this view but thought I should mention it.

5 I say largely symbolic because some sociologists fall short by saying that we live in a mere symbolic universe. I’m not convinced that religious experience, before the interpretive stage, is symbolic. I believe the Holy Spirit can touch us directly. So part of our experience, provided we’re open to religious experience, can be direct and non-representational.

Related » Active Imagination, Archetypal Image, Roland Barthes, Rudolf Bultmann, Bruce Cockburn, Emile Durkheim, Emic-Etic, Icon, Object, Participation Mystique, Surrealism, Wittgenstein, Yoni


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Reductio ad absurdum – An old school way of saying “take the flipside” or “take it to the limit”

Image via Wikipedia

Image via Wikipedia

Reductio ad absurdum [Latin: “reduce to the absurd”] is a method of argumentation said to

  • prove a statement to be true by demonstrating the contradiction, absurdity and therefore impossibility that would result if it were untrue

or

  • prove a statement to be false by taking its assertions and implications to their logical endpoint

Example for the first type of reductio ad absurdum

English: Queen Christina of Sweden (left) and ...

Queen Christina of Sweden (left) and René Descartes (right). Detail from René Descartes i samtal med Sveriges drottning, Kristina. Pierre Louis Dumesnil. Museo nacional de Versailles. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Consider the French philosopher René Descartes famous line, I think, therefore I am.

And its falsification: I think, therefore I am not.

Here one can ask: If a person thinks that she or he does not exist, who is doing the thinking?

By falsifying the original statement, the ensuing absurdity apparently proves the original statement to be true.

The depth psychologist Carl Jung uses a form of reductio ad absurdum to try to refute the Buddhist notion of no-self; that is, the Buddhist idea that individuality is an illusion. Jung asks: Who experiences the bliss of Nirvana if no self is present to experience it?

This might seem clever and amusing but Buddhists could reply that the center of consciousness merely shifts from illusory individualism to actual totality.¹

Example for the second type of reductio ad absurdum

Crime Time

Crime Time (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Consider the argument, sometimes heard today, that it’s okay to do crime because everyone is a sinner and the whole world is corrupt.

If one takes that to its logical conclusion we get:

It’s not okay to do crime because if the whole world didn’t resist sin, corruption and crime we’d have violent, lawless chaos.

¹ This stance is not accepted by those who believe that individual souls have a relationship with the godhead.

Related » Anatman, Theism


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Reason, Revelation, Inspiration and Illumination – A Matter of Character or Degree?

In both philosophy and theology a distinction is often made between

  • knowledge obtained through reason

and

  • knowledge obtained through revelation

Many learned and pious discussions follow from this way of looking at things. But I believe the distinction, itself, should be examined. It is conceivable that ideas and their arrangement in a coherent argument could be revealed or, at least, partially revealed to a person from God.

Traditional Catholic theologians usually call this inspiration as a result of illumination, suggesting that the process somehow differs from receiving divine revelations.

But where do we draw the line?

In dream psychology, Carl Jung talks about big dreams and little dreams. Big dreams, according to Jung’s theory, involve the collective unconscious. Little dreams involve the personal unconscious. But the scope of dreams rarely, if ever, involve just me or everyone.

Dreams usually involve some mixture of the personal and the collective unconscious. So the dream type rests upon a continuum. Some dreams do seem bigger than others. But it’s still you dreaming them. Likewise, some dreams seem more personal than others. But they’re still coming from a mysterious source.

Could we not make a similar case with the distinction between revelation vs. inspiration and illumination? Instead of this or that, it seems more prudent to speak of a continuum.¹


¹ One of the great weakness of some aspects of Catholic theology, as I see it, is that its truth claims must fit – or appear to fit – with everything that came before. This makes some aspects of Catholic teaching a bit too close to politics and power, which is probably one of the main reasons why the Church is desparate for new priests and also, turning away many good, conscientious lay persons.

Related » St. Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Revealed Knowledge


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Erich Fromm and the “Mass Man”

Gedenktafel für Erich Fromm aus der Reihe Mit ...

Plaque for Erich Fromm from the series with Freud in Berlin. Bayerischer Platz 1, Berlin-Schöneberg. Enthüllt am 1. Juli 2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Erich Fromm (1900-1980) was a German-born American psychologist and social thinker who is often linked to the Frankfurt school of critical theory.

Fromm’s work combined different ideas from the works of Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and J.-P. Sartre.

Like Carl Jung, he was acutely aware of the danger of bureaucracies controlled by the wrong people. He leveled a critique against the so-called mass man who, like a robot, compliantly follows orders to maintain financial security at the expense of human decency.

For Fromm, individuals “escape from freedom” through at least three often related routes:

  • Authoritarianism – losing the self by over-identifying with a powerful leader
  • Automaton Conformity – blindly following the will of a powerful leader
  • Destructiveness –  hurting self or others in an attempt to blot out a painful reality

In “The Sane Society” (1955), Fromm says modern individuals are alienated from their authentic self by seeking ephemeral thrills through mass culture and consumerism. According to Fromm, what makes us truly human is our ability to love. If we sacrifice this to the gods of commerce or political ambition, we’ve sacrificed our greatest gift of all.

Fromm’s works include The Fear of Freedom (1941), The Art of Loving (1956) and The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973).

Related » HAL 9000, Borg, Projection