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The View From Nowhere

12/20/2008 1 comment

The following quotes are from a book I have currently undertook by philosopher Thomas Nagel. As with some blog posts, this is as much for myself as it is for others. It allows me to readily have access to as well as contemplate and re-contemplate certain quotes that I find important or intriguing in some way. The book concerns one of Nagels primary focus points in his philosophical life: the nature of objectivity. Hence, the title of the book, “The View From Nowhere.” Anything in brackets are my own comments.

A bit about objectivity:

The limit of objectivity with which I shall be most concerned is one that follows directly from the process of gradual detachment by which objectivity is achieved. An objective standpoint is created by leaving a more subjective, individual, or even just human perspective behind; but there are things about the world and life and ourselves that cannot be adequately understood from a maximally objective standpoint, however much it may extend our understanding beyond the point from which we started. A great deal is essentially connected to a particular point of view, or type of point of view, and the attempt to give a complete account of the world in objective terms detached from these perspectives inevitably leads to false reductions or to outright denial that certain patently real phenomena exist at all.
This form of objective blindness is most conspicuous in the philosophy of mind, where one or another external theory of the mental, from physicalism to functionalism, is widely held. What motivates these views is the assumption that what there really is must be understandable in a certain way–that reality is in a narrow sense objective reality. For many philosophers the exemplary case of reality is the world described by physics, the science in which we have achieved our greatest detachment from a specifically human perspective on the world. But for precisely that reason physics is bound to leave undescribed the irreducibly subjective character of conscious mental processes, whatever may be their intimate relation to the physical operation of the brain. The subjectivity of consciousness is an irreducible feature of reality–without which we couldn’t do physics or anything else–and it must occupy as fundamental a place in any credible world view as matter, energy, space, time, and numbers. [Affirming, as do most contemporary philosophers, that reductive materialism is dead. Could there actually be consensus among the philosophical community in certain areas? I wonder if there are any reductive materialists left.]

On the nature of philosophy and philosophers:

It is necessary to combine the recognition of our contingency, our finitude, and our containment in the world with an ambition of transcendence, however limited may be our success in achieving it. The right attitude in philosophy is to accept aims that we can achieve only fractionally and imperfectly, and cannot be sure of achieving even to that extent [Awesome. I really don’t think philosophy would be possible in the contemporary age without such an attitude. If one is going to do philosophy at all, he or she might as well admit this at the outset. Let’s not be hindered by delusions of grandeur]

If the theories of historical captivity or grammatical delusion [Wittgenstein] are not true, why have some philosophers felt themselves cured of their metaphysical problems by these forms of therapy? My counterdiagnosis is that a lot of philosophers are sick of the subject and glad to be rid of its problems. Most of us find it hopeless some of the time, but some react to its intractability by welcoming the suggestion that the enterprise is misconceived and the problems unreal. This makes them receptive not only to scientism but to deflationary metaphilosophical theories like positivism and pragmatism, which offer to raise us above the old battles.
This is more than the usual wish to transcend one’s predecessors, for it includes a rebellion against the philosophical impulse itself, which is felt as humiliating and unrealistic. It is natural to feel victimized by philosophy, but this particular defensive reaction goes too far. It is like the hatred of childhood and results in a vain effort to grow up too early, before one has gone through the essential formative confusions and exaggerated hopes that have to be experienced on the way to understanding anything. Philosophy is the childhood of the intellect, and a culture that tries to skip it will never grow up.
There is a persistent temptation to turn philosophy into something less difficult and more shallow than it is. It is an extremely difficult subject, and no exception to the general rule that creative efforts are rarely successful. I do not feel equal to the problems treated in this book. They seem to me to require an order of intelligence wholly different from mine. [All too true. Philosophy, I would argue, is probably the most difficult subject matter than one can undertake…this is no exaltation on my part for I still know very little about philosophy and I suspect, like Nagel, that it may simply be too much for this intellect.]

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When Jesus met Buddha

The following is an intriguing article on the syncretization that occurred between Christianity and Buddhism over one thousand years ago in Asia. A little appetizer involving beautiful imagery and symbolism:

Just how far these Christians were prepared to [syncretize] is suggested by a startling symbol that appeared on memorials and stone carvings in both southern India and coastal China during the early Middle Ages. We can easily see that the image depicts a cross, but it takes a moment to realize that the base of the picture – the root from which the cross is growing – is a lotus flower, the symbol of Buddhist enlightenment.

Full article here.

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Rorty on death and poetry

12/02/2008 1 comment
Richard Rorty muses about his preference for poetry over religion and philosophy in the face of death, the end of a Platonic dream, and what it means to be fully human.

By Richard Rorty

In an essay called “Pragmatism and Romanticism” I tried to restate the argument of Shelley’s “Defense of Poetry.” At the heart of Romanticism, I said, was the claim that reason can only follow paths that the imagination has first broken. No words, no reasoning. No imagination, no new words. No such words, no moral or intellectual progress.

I ended that essay by contrasting the poet’s ability to give us a richer language with the philosopher’s attempt to acquire non-linguistic access to the really real. Plato’s dream of such access was itself a great poetic achievement. But by Shelley’s time, I argued, it had been dreamt out. We are now more able than Plato was to acknowledge our finitude — to admit that we shall never be in touch with something greater than ourselves. We hope instead that human life here on earth will become richer as the centuries go by because the language used by our remote descendants will have more resources than ours did. Our vocabulary will stand to theirs as that of our primitive ancestors stands to ours.

In that essay, as in previous writings, I used “poetry” in an extended sense. I stretched Harold Bloom’s term “strong poet” to cover prose writers who had invented new language games for us to play — people like Plato, Newton, Marx, Darwin, and Freud as well as versifiers like Milton and Blake. These games might involve mathematical equations, or inductive arguments, or dramatic narratives, or (in the case of the versifiers) prosodic innovation. But the distinction between prose and verse was irrelevant to my philosophical purposes.

Shortly after finishing “Pragmatism and Romanticism,” I was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer. Some months after I learned the bad news, I was sitting around having coffee with my elder son and a visiting cousin. My cousin (who is a Baptist minister) asked me whether I had found my thoughts turning toward religious topics, and I said no. “Well, what about philosophy?” my son asked. “No,” I replied, neither the philosophy I had written nor that which I had read seemed to have any particular bearing on my situation. I had no quarrel with Epicurus’s argument that it is irrational to fear death, nor with Heidegger’s suggestion that ontotheology originates in an attempt to evade our mortality. But neither ataraxia (freedom from disturbance) nor Sein zum Tode (being toward death) seemed in point.

“Hasn’t anything you’ve read been of any use?” my son persisted. “Yes,” I found myself blurting out, “poetry.” “Which poems?” he asked. I quoted two old chestnuts that I had recently dredged up from memory and been oddly cheered by, the most quoted lines of Swinburne’s “Garden of  Proserpine”:

We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.

and Landor’s “On His Seventy-Fifth Birthday”:

Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art;
I warmed both hands before the fire of life,
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

I found comfort in those slow meanders and those stuttering embers. I suspect that no comparable effect could have been produced by prose. Not just imagery, but also rhyme and rhythm were needed to do the job. In lines such as these, all three conspire to produce a degree of compression, and thus of  impact, that only verse can achieve. Compared to the shaped charges contrived by versifiers, even the best prose is scattershot.

Though various bits of verse have meant a great deal to me at particular moments in my life, I have never been able to write any myself (except for scribbling sonnets during dull faculty meetings — a form of  doodling). Nor do I keep up with the work of contemporary poets. When I do read verse, it is mostly favorites from adolescence. I suspect that my ambivalent relation to poetry, in this narrower sense, is a result of Oedipal complications produced by having had a poet for a father. (See James Rorty, Children of the Sun (Macmillan, 1926).)

However that may be, I now wish that I had spent somewhat more of my life with verse. This is not because I fear having missed out on truths that are incapable of statement in prose. There are no such truths; there is nothing about death that Swinburne and Landor knew but Epicurus and Heidegger failed to grasp. Rather, it is because I would have lived more fully if I had been able to rattle off more old chestnuts — just as I would have if I had made more close friends. Cultures with richer vocabularies are more fully human — farther removed from the beasts — than those with poorer ones; individual men and women are more fully human when their memories are amply stocked with verses.

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