Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Chomsky Harris Debate

There was a recent exchange between Noam Chomsky and Sam Harris here

The issues aren't clear from the exchange. This may clarify:

Chomsky knows Harris's views, Harris doesn't know Chomsky's. Chomsky's been arguing against such views as Harris's and has developed a critique of such views for fifty years. Harris doesn't even know Chomsky's arguments or position. He could know Chomsky's positions and still disagree, but he needs to understand what a radical critique of the US role in the world says and the evidence for it.

Harris is taking a useful aspect of judging moral culpability - the intention of the perpetrator - and applying it to large social events. Chomsky - probably - is fine with the distinction between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter - where the intention of the person is taken into account - but that doesn't mean he thinks you can take powerful, large, social actors and apply the same individualistic criterion for assessing their moral actions.

I think Harris should not focus on intention when determining the morality of social actors' actions. Then he is vulnerable to Chomsky's argument that Hitler claimed good intentions. Harris, I think, should focus on his claim that the US is a more morally developed society and that the actions they are taking, not only are designed to make others morally more developed, but, more importantly, that the results of their actions create moral improvement for others. Harris's point should not be that Clinton or Bush didn't intend to hurt people, but that the effect of their actions over time is moral, social, or economic, improvement for others. If that's the case, then Harris can say the Japanese, the Nazis and Al Qaeda aren't doing that. They may say they are protecting the German people or making the world better by restoring Islam, but they are not. I don't think Harris would be right if he argued that, I agree with Chomsky's view, but I think that's what's crucial in Harris's view.

Harris lists the horrors of American actions over its history, but he doesn't take the next step. The next step is to ask: What social understanding explains all the results of US actions? Harris is saying: Yes the US has done bad, but we're basically creating good. Chomsky is saying: When you look at the results of US actions over time, Harris's explanation doesn't hold up. If the results of a system's foreign policy are consistently bad we start to say that attributing the bad results to unintentional mistakes - the US as well-intended but clumsy giant - doesn't work anymore. That could be a debate between them. But Harris would surely lose. Chomsky has a staggering wealth of knowledge about just those facts and Harris doesn't. But someone else politically knowledgeable might be able to challenge Chomsky's understanding.

What they should be arguing is: what have been the results of US actions in the world over an historical period and what does that tell us about how the social structure of the US functions to produce those outcomes? We shouldn't focus on intentions when we analyze social events, we should look primarily at the results of social actors' acting over time and find an explanation that explains the most data. I've found Chomsky's fact-based, moral and logical view the best.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

On Bergson

Note: I'm trying to put some of my notebook observations on this blog without being so persnickety about the quality.

The thing I never got about the French philosopher Henri Bergson was why he was so popular for a time and why he lost popularity so completely. So often when he was mentioned the standard thing to say about him was that he was the most famous philosopher in the world in the pre-WWI period and then he was forgotten. I remember reading in Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy a dismissive article about Bergson.

It would commonly be said of Bergson that he theorized duree which is our subjective experience of time in contrast to objective, clock time. Like the way boredom makes things slow down and interest makes time go by faster. Didn’t seem like much when described like that. But I knew that Gilles Deleuze wrote a book called Bergsonism and reinterpreted Bergson in the late sixties and saw great insight there. So what was the Bergson story?

Bergson, according to Suzanne Guerlac in her book Thinking in Time: An Introduction to Henri Bergson, is saying that a background presupposition of our taken-for-granted conception of reality - not even to be noted - is space. Whatever happens has to happen within a container, a space, a field, an environment. The place in which things occur.

Bergson contrasts pure duration - duree -which she says he says can be distinguished from “time.” Because space is presupposed to be there holding whatever is, time is conceived along the lines of space, as a holder - past, present, future - of what happens. History happens “in” time (“in” being a spatial category used to described time). As if time is a thing that exists and contains the contents that occur in it.

Bergson is saying that what we experience subjectively are qualities, differences, but not just differences in quantity but difference in quality. So his example of the piece of paper illuminated by four candles and then progressively unilluminated as each candle is blown out. Is there a quantitative reduction in brightness, so that the white paper gradually looks black (after the fourth candle is blown out) or are there a succession of different hues going from white to greys to black? Is objective time and the space everything is happening within the real reality and the subjective experience of qualities the more ephemeral reality? Bergson reverses it so that the world is seen what it looks like when what arises in our experience and its qualities are taken to be fundamental.

Here is the French connection to phenomenology and Buddhist practice. Even Modernist literature and their focus on first-person subjective experience. Perhaps there is a French tradition getting at the lived subjective experience, life as lived, going back to Montaigne. And more recently Maupassant, Bergson, Joyce (in Paris), Beckett (in France), Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Deleuze. Even Foucault and how self and consciousness are formed. And Pierre Hadot and how the Greek philosophers were interested in "spiritual exercises" to train oneself to experience life rightly.


Saturday, September 21, 2013

Areas of Interest

After studying for thirty years I recently realized how many themes of interest I have that keep getting picked up, satisfied for the time being, and then set aside. I thought I'd try to list some of these areas of interest. Some of them are relatively new. Some of them I left in graduate school in the eighties and always wanted to explore again:

Romanticism. The German variety from the late 18th and early 19th century. I never learned the difference between all those German “S-C-H’s”: Schiller, Schelling, Schleiemacher, the two Schlegels. I see though that there is a philosophical anti-foudationalism there and I’d like to understand it. Started reading Frederick Beiser's well-written intellectual histories, The Romantic Imperative and others.

Pragmatism. Looking at the Notre Dame Philosophical Book Review site there are some new books on Pragmatism. Since it is my basic philosophy I'd like to see what people who can explain it well are saying about it. So read Robert Schwartz's Rethinking Pragmatism and Michael Bacon's new introduction to Pragmatism.

The other day I saw on the new book shelf at my college library an introduction to The Kyoto School of philosophy. This is the school of philosophy that arose in Japan in the 20th century and used western philosophical language and techniques to philosophize an Eastern way of understanding existence and the world. I’ve always thought I’d like to understand better what philosophers using a analytic style would do with Buddhist concepts and that’s what these guys did.

I’ve always wanted to understand Spinoza better but haven’t found the right book for it.

Recently I read a compelling reinterpretation of ordinary language philosophy. It's always intrigued me but it always seemed dry and dusty. But Avner Baz’s book When Words are Called For interprets ordinary language philosophy as a radical critique of central parts of contemporary philosophy.

I’ve always wanted to understand how those who practice philosophical counseling understand it and distinguish it from psychotherapy. I got a couple books by Peter Raabe on it. Looks like they have trouble defining what philosophical counseling is.

While I assume – because of my assimilation of Chomsky’s political insight – that Iran is being set up as a useful enemy by the American political establishment and media, I didn’t really understand contemporary Iran well. I just figured it’s an authoritarian Islamic state and bad, but of course not to be threatened, sanctioned and attacked as the US is doing. But the recent book by longtime policy insiders Floyd and Hilary Mann Leverett, Going to Teheran, is quite an eye-opener. They say that the Islamic revolution of 1979 was an authentic revolution and that Ayatollah Khomeini was an authentic revolutionary. I always figured he was an evil guy (remember those eyebrows?) who established with others an authoritarian Islamic state. The Leverett’s always refer to “The Islamic Republic of Iran” instead of just “Iran” to emphasize that there was a genuine attempt at, and that there is a genuine kind of, democratic republic in Iran. That it is an Islamic-democratic hybrid and that the people do have some say. They even present solid evidence that the last elections that re-elected Ahmadinejad, which were presented in the American media as fraudulent, were actually as legitimate as elections generally are in democratic countries. More recently, the current elected president, Hassan Rouhani, is considered, by Iranian standards, more moderate than Ahmadinejad.

I want to understand more about what Charles Peirce, the pragmatist philosopher, said about the relationship between ethics and aesthetics. Did he really see ethics as more fundamental than epistemology and aesthetics as more fundamental than ethics?

What are the further implications of seeing knowledge as a kind of social status that some information has conferred upon it by a social consensus, rather than as a designation of the information’s validity according to some independent means of validation?

I still want to get back to Hegel. Maybe through Robert Pippin, maybe through Zizek, and maybe through Fredric Jameson. Not sure I want to read Hegel himself.
Some day I’d like to try reading Lacan himself. I spent a couple years in a reading group reading secondary sources on him: Bruce Fink and Slavoj Zizek.

The concept of the normative seems to be big these days. It still seems murky to me. This new book by Joshua Gert, Normative Bedrock, seems to take an approach I like, but I’m having trouble getting into it.

I still would like to read some Bakhtin after reading in a study group a selection from Tzvetan Todorov’s The Dialogical Imagination. I like Bakhtin’s attempt to see meaning as originating not just in contexts but in specific, unique contexts that, because they are the context that are occurring right now with these people who are talking, gain meaning from what has just been said and what we anticipate saying. It could link up with Baz’s interpretation of ordinary language philosophy since he criticizes both the semantic and the contextualizing approaches to determining truth and meaning by focusing on not trying to create a theory of meaning. That ordinary language philosophy is, Wittgenstein-like, a careful dismantling of the need for such theories. Maybe a kind of philosophical therapy.

In general, through pragmatism, ordinary language philosophy, Nietzsche, Buddhism, phenomenology, Bakhtin and others I seem to keep wanting to get away from abstraction and systems to a thinking that focuses on the texture of lived experience. Philosophy as being used to alter ourselves for the better and so having practical purposes.

I want to read more Zizek, but not commentary on Zizek, because he’s so enjoyable and delightful to read. And he gives lively and understandable descriptions of tough thinkers’ thoughts.

I’d like to finish Richard Bernstein’s Praxis and Action.

I’d like a nice book on Kierkegaard and to read again, in the Hong translation, the parts in Concluding Unscientific Postscript about subjectivity. As I recall the passages on subjectivity are so compelling that it seems while reading them that subjectivity is the true reality and the starting point for any thinking or living. That’s rhetorical skill!

Still want to read Adorno again and the Frankfurt School but not sure what. Maybe the nice looking history of the school by Rolf Wiggershaus.

More Hayden White. Still want to read all of his Metahistory.

I’d like to understand the dichotomy between the figural and the literal. Does literal correspond to the correspondence theory of truth? Literal meaning how things actually are? But isn’t that a philosophical assertion: how things actually are. We live a culture in which the surest knowledge is from the natural sciences and so what is "literally" true is what is physically true and not metaphysically true. Compare how those from medieval times may have thought that God and the soul were literally true and nature was a metaphor, messages from God, to be interpreted. This difficulty with the idea of the literal underlay Nietzsche’s metaphorization of language. That metaphor or the figural comes first and then comes literality.

I'd like to review Max Weber's sociology and the phenomenological sociology of Alfred Schutz. I could never get into Schutz because I was so politically minded and much more attracted to The Frankfurt School thinkers. Perhaps I could appreciate Schutz now.

I still want to understand theories of the placebo effect. If the placebo effect has to be ruled out as a cause of healing against every new medicine, and if it also is superior, sometimes, to doing nothing and letting the body heal itself, how does it work? What is the physiological mechanism by which we heal ourselves better than our natural process because we think we're getting medicine? Mind over matter doesn't explain much since almost everyone would see mind as a result of the matter of the brain and nervous system.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Chomsky and Zizek and the Journal

The recent “feud” between Chomsky and Zizek that the Wall Street Journal is promoting is only interesting for the use it is being put by the Journal. Reading Chomsky on politics in 1982 transformed me into a lifelong learner, reader of Chomsky and reader of Chomsky’s political critics. His empirical accuracy over a thirty year period has been astounding (check out the 500 pages of footnotes that accompanied the book Understanding Power). Contrary to many who are fans of Chomsky’s political critique, I’ve also loved the work of Salvoj Zizek. Chomsky’s statements implying that Zizek’s work has no value are wrong. I’ve found Zizek’s insights stimulating, helpful and fun. I don’t think I would understand what’s valuable in Lacan without Zizek and Bruce Fink. So I think Chomsky is wrong about Zizek and Lacan, and Zizek is wrong about Chomsky. They are both great in their domains. I do think that Zizek’s comments about contemporary political events – like the war in Afghanistan – are weak. That kind of stuff is Chomsky’s great strength.

It shows how skewed mainstream debate is that you can just state a crude version of Chomsky’s views and they seem foolish. But is the sense of foolishness in Chomsky’s views or in the mainstream assumptions that he is countering? What if it turns out that the mainstream assumptions are ludicrous – the US is pro-democracy, there is an Israeli-Palestinian peace process? If the radical argument against mainstream assumptions is seriously considered then the reader has to find out what’s right by exploring the issues. The Journal author doesn’t want the reader to do this and so the whole incident is presented as humorous and not to be taken seriously. Ironically, this is just the kind of journalistic behavior that Chomsky and Zizek help us understand. No wonder the author doesn't want to confront the issues they raise.

The whole point of the story of the “feud” is to marginalize these thinkers who offer a radical and rationally argued critique of western social and political structures and policies. Since the Wall Street Journal is a bastion of and, on its editorial page, a promoter of mainstream conservative policies they naturally oppose radical critique. Since the Journal is in the power position they can make fun of opponents. By not treating them seriously they can try to get their readers not to treat them seriously and instead use them for entertainment purposes.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Nietzsche and Klossowski

For the last few months I've been poring over Pierre Klossowski's Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle. I had heard about it as one of the great Nietzsche interpretations, but I was unprepared for how great it is. What first intrigued me was the translator's quoting Michel Foucault's letter to Klossowski after the publication of the book in French in 1969. Foucault wrote: "It is the greatest book of philosophy I have read" and that in its quality it is "with Nietzsche himself." That's high praise! But it's true. I don't think I've ever read a book a second time right after finishing it the first time. I've told myself I would with some books, but never did. I'm just finishing it a second time and may start a third. I don't use it to derive arguments or know what Nietzsche really said. I experience it. It elaborates pretty precisely a proto-Freudian vision of existence and the world in which all that we take for granted as what makes things happen as they do are actually secondary or tertiary epi-phenomena or froth on the waves of reality. So consciousness, reason, the will, the self, distinct things, order all are plausibly, acutely and convincingly dismantled and seen as the result of an underground world of forces and impulses.

Recently a friend asked his standard question when I tell him about a thinker I'm reading: "What is the essence of the thinker's view in one sentence?" In one way it's absurd to try to summarize someone's thought in one sentence, but in another way it's an interesting challenge. He asked me to summarize Nietzsche and I thought my answer pretty good. I said: "Existence is a cacophonous melody."

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Preferential Moment

If the preference for an idea, the liking or disliking, strikes first, and the reasoning that justifies it follows, then learning more about the ingredients and mechanics of preference tells us about belief. And in learning about belief we learn about one of the determinants of what we confer the word “knowledge” upon. For knowledge, in part, is made up from the mix of beliefs that people have. Without a method for analyzing the moment of preference it passes by mostly unnoticed. Generally, when we are questioned about this moment of preference – called assumption, intuition, the given, self-evidence - we shrug because we have to accept its role in belief creation, but there’s not much more to say about it. Additionally, there’s often a discomfort with it because it runs counter to the primacy of reason as the reason we believe. Yet how do reasons which justify an opposite view also gain allegiance? How does a reasoning and conclusion the opposite of ours convince? Its convincingness has to have an alien quality to us because it cannot do to us what it does to our intellectual opponent. To know it in that way – the way the convinced know it – is to have “gone native” and become a convert. Conversion occurs when we transcend reason and have an experience of something as the truth.

This focus on the preferential moment, our liking or disliking, our desires, is unusual. It runs contrary to the main thrust of post-Enlightenment reason and science. But its role in believing the ideas we adopt as our own is, I’m arguing, necessary. If necessary we should know more about it.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Whose Truth?

Here's a reply I made here:

I think it's understandable even with a few inside references:

By what means or criterion do we determine the Truth? F. has his approach. I would guess that if you practiced his/Dan Brown’s/the Mahamudra approach then it would look that way. But if you practiced another approach you may find a different Truth or no Truth or some Non-Dual, ineffable, relative/absolute, Truth/Non-Truth. How are these differing Truths to be adjudicated? How do we sort out which is really the Truth? Whose practices, traditions, concepts, experiences are we to trust as providing The Truth?

Even with powerful practices to determine the Truth we still have to convince others through our words and through our persuasiveness to do the practices that we’ve found show the Truth. It’s the interaction with the community of those involved in determining what we know that we must engage regardless of how convinced we are by our Truth, which, of course, we know is The Truth. (This is Wilber’s three strands of any valid knowledge quest, the last strand is the opinion of the relevant community about the proposed piece of knowledge, that’s why his concept of orienting generalizations is important to him, because it determines what is knowledge.)

This view of the inevitable plurality of truths causes me to like, in contrast to Fede, Wilber’s move to a post-metaphysical integral theory in which the leading edge development is both discovering and creating the truth through its life practice on more developed levels. I don’t think that’s what’s really happening, but this incorporation of the role of the person and the human community in the creation of what we know is true captures something important about our postmodern present and so could argue that it is a transcendence and inclusion of a contemporary understanding.

But I also made the point that there is too much made of Truth in spiritual circles. I said that we should care more about ethics and actions. A person who has the Truth may still do bad things and a person without the truth may do good things. What we want is people acting better and talking about how we should act and altering their selves in order to act more ethically.

So a difference between us is how we believe you determine when you have knowledge. For you powerful mystical experiences are the means to Ultimate knowledge. Probably because you’ve had those experiences and were convinced by them. I have not had those experiences. For a different set of reasons than you I promote an emphasis on knowledge as more fundamentally dependent on ethics and the power structure of the institutions that determine knowledge. So when we are at the intellectual level in which we discuss philosophical topics like the character of knowledge, our views start diverging and we reach a point where you cannot give reasons for your choice of one criterion of knowledge over another. That’s when we would inquire into the extra-rational reasons any given person believes in something rather than something else. I advocate and demonstrate a “psychology of belief” in order to examine the nature of our attachment to the belief we find convincing for extra-rational reasons.