Monday, March 31, 2014

It’s a Jungle in There

When I lived in the St. Louis area, I used to like to visit the Botanical Garden, especially the tropical house epically named the Cyclotron. It was hot and muggy (although on some hot St. Louis days, you could barely tell the difference), it smelled of earth and green life, and you could walk past leaves larger than your car. As far as I knew, the experience really felt like being in a dense jungle – except that you had the convenience of paved paths and no need of a machete. In the middle stood a raised structure: a jungle bridge, you might say. Standing there, you got a panoramic view of the tropical garden and could even get some glimpses, between the upper branches and through the glass dome, of the rest of the park’s grounds. Perspective. With a clear path leading to it.

Edmund Husserl’s The Crisis of the European Sciences also smells of earth, although I can’t testify to the aroma of green life. It has phrases and sentences larger than my car. And it is very dense. In a couple of places, Husserl provides vantage points with (relatively) clear explanations of what he’s about. But there the comparison with the Cyclotron ends. I definitely had to use a mental machete to get to the clearings in this jungle.  Consider 265 pages of this:

But this is done in such a way that, in egological self-reflection, I delimit my original sphere (the sphere of "primordiality") and reveal within its network intentional syntheses and implications in their strata of intentional modification; withholding validity from all my empathies in a methodical way, through a sort of epochē within the epochē, and maintaining them only as my experiences [Erlebnisse], I attain the essential structures of an original life.

Or how about this circular palm frond?

Instead of persisting in this manner of “straightforwardly living into the world,” let us attempt a universal change of interest in which the new expression “pregivenness of the world” becomes necessary because it is the title for this differently directed and yet again universal theme of the manners of pregivenness.

How can the expression “pregivenness” be new if it’s the title of a universal theme that Husserl has only “differently directed”? And while we’re at it, why must he spend a sentence telling the reader that he has found it necessary to name pregivenness “pregivenness”?

Husserl does have a point, though. It isn’t the same as Reid’s, which I vainly predicted a couple of weeks ago. But it’s there at the center of the pathless Husserlian Cyclotron, and I got it. The next necessary step in philosophy, Husserl says, the step that will correct all the naïveté of every previous philosophy and provide the foundation for the solution to all of philosophy’s perennial problems (his claim – I’m not exaggerating) is to stand above (he emphasizes the word) all questions of the existence of the objects of our perception. Very much like Reid, whose Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man I finished just a week ago, Husserl says that the images we have change consistently as we change our perspective, so we can trust their internal coherence and study them and base science on them. But, very much unlike Reid, he says we must not ask whether the world that the images seem to point to actually exists.

Now that doesn’t take 265 pages to say. And this “phenomenological” philosophy doesn’t provide the ground for answering all philosophical problems, as Husserl claims: by refusing to ask whether things exist, it can’t possibly solve the problem of whether they do.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Reid’s Ideas About Ideas

I’m the last person I know of who took slides. I stopped only about ten years ago. I’ve suffered a lot of good-natured ridicule over my habit, especially when I used to show slides of my kids or of trips. But I just couldn’t see how anyone could prefer dull inks on a 4"x6" card over the bright colored beams of light shining on a screen 150 times as large. And the resolution was astonishing! As large as I ever made the projection of one of my slides, I never detected any graininess.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a slide I took in the museum atop the Acropolis in Athens, a picture of a bas relief of a boy leading a cow. I stared and stared at that sculpture for a long time, unable to shake the nagging question: Is it really there? Weird question, I know. Maybe not so weird, though, right after a semester of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophy at the University of Iowa. Empirical philosophers like Locke and Hume said that although everything we know comes through our senses, our senses are cheats (Who could have guessed that I’d allude to A Christmas Carol two posts in a row? Okay, it’s not really all that unlikely.) As I was saying, your senses are cheats. You could be dreaming. You could be hallucinating. Even if you’re in your right, wakeful mind and the thing is truly there, you don’t actually know what it looks like. You think you know what a circular table looks like, for instance, but you always only see one side of it at a time. And the top almost never actually appears as a circle, unless you’re looking at it from straight above. You may think of it as a circle, but try drawing a true circle on a piece of paper with some legs under it, and you’ll find that what you drew doesn’t look like anything in reality. You don’t know what color the table is, either, since it looks black in one kind of lighting and gray in another. You don’t even know what size the table is, since it appears smaller when you’re farther away. You don’t actually see a table, the empiricists concluded. You see a constantly changing series of images in your mind. What you see are only “ideas.” Whether or how those ideas correspond to a table, you can’t know.

Twenty-seven years later, I’m wondering why that professor couldn’t have had us read some Thomas Reid in that class. Reid was the chief figure in Scottish Common Sense philosophy and wrote mainly in response to Hume, who argued that besides not knowing if the table exists, I couldn’t even know if the “I” that I imagine seeing the (imaginary) table exists. Reid’s solution to the problem posed by Hume boils down, in my mind at least, to two very effective arguments.

First, Reid says, You empiricists claim that when I think I see a table, I actually only see an idea in my mind. In other words, that image of an ellipse with four legs in my mind is the true object of an action of my mind called “seeing,” an act that has nothing to do with my eyes. But every day common sense tells us that the image itself is the action of my mind and that the object of that action is a table existing in reality outside my mind. You argue as if the burden is on me to prove the existence of the table outside myself. But I say that your theory posits new things for which you have no evidence. So the burden of proof is actually on you empiricists to show us the image in the mind as an existing object. Where and how does this happen in the brain? And what is this action called “seeing” that is separate from the image of the table? My senses give me continuing evidence of the existence of the table, but you give me no evidence of the existence of an extra act of the mind that “sees” an image in my mind.

This argument took all the wind out the empiricists’ sails for me. Like the table seen from a great distance, their nagging skepticism suddenly seemed very small. But I still wanted some positive indication that the table (and the bas relief) existed, and this Reid gave me a few chapters later. All the talk about the changing perspective of the table as we move around, he points out, far from telling us to doubt our senses and the existence of the table, shows us exactly the opposite. Of course we can never see the whole of the table at once. But the principles of geometry predict what aspect we will see, what apparent size it will take on, and what angles and shapes will appear to us in representation of the circular table. And since our changing perspective follows those geometrical predictions exactly every time we move, we have overwhelming, consistent evidence that the images all result from the sight of an actual table with one given shape and determinable dimensions.

If you’ve never read Descartes or Locke or Hume, you may be experiencing a bout of a different kind of  skepticism right now: you may have trouble believing that such thoughts had ever troubled me or that I could ever have doubted the existence of a particular sculpture in the Acropolis museum. But I have read those philosophers, and their arguments stuck with me. I had some ripostes in mind: some I had read in other places and some I had concocted on my own. But Thomas Reid’s response has surpassed them all. I wish he were here so I could shake his hand and thank him. And I wish my philosophy professor were here so I could shake his hand and tell him to include Reid in his class.

To go back to the Acropolis, my response to my doubts about that sculpture didn’t make much sense, now that I think about it. I tried to capture an elusive material being by recording some light waves on film. Then I developed the film and shined a projector light through the slide, casting the colors on a screen, which reflected the colored light into my eyes. And now I have the slide digitized. So when I look at the picture these days, I’m seeing the representation on a computer screen of a series of magnetic polarities set by scanning the light shining through a slide developed from film exposed to the light reflecting off of a bas relief sculpture of a boy. So I’m several steps removed from that sculpture. But at least I now believe the sculpture exists.

At least it did in 1987 when I last saw it with my own eyes.

Monday, March 24, 2014

One Sentence of Reid

Six days having passed since the last post, today’s offering seems late to me. But then, like Bob Cratchit coming to the counting house past opening time on December 26, I can claim I have been “making rather merry.” Not with Christmas punch, but with grandchildren. I’ve been getting up early to keep up with my reading, but then I and my brain are exhausted by the end of the day and not capable of writing intelligently. I’ve already read some Husserl this morning, but the kids are still in bed. So I’ll give it a shot. You can decide whether the word “intelligently” applies to the result.

Now what can I write about in just a few minutes? I finished the Koran several days ago, and I don’t know what to write about it. When I read Dickens or Boswell or Plato, I seem to know exactly what to say and feel confident about it. But I have no confidence that I understand half of the things in the Koran to say anything worthwhile at all about them. But then other things seem far too clear to me to comment on. As far as Husserl goes, I suppose I could take entire groups of chapters and assign them each to just one sentence of Reid that says the same thing only more clearly and (obviously) concisely.

Reid! There it is. I have something to say about Thomas Reid. This morning isn’t the time to go into detail. But I have time to praise one shortish passage about systems of definitions and ideas, the kind of thing you might learn in the first in a sequence of college courses.
    With regard to the utility of systems of this kind, men have gone into contrary extremes: some have treated them with contempt, as a mere dictionary of words; others, perhaps, rest in such systems, as all that is worth knowing in the works of nature.
    On the one hand, it is not the intention of such systems to communicate all that is known of the natural productions which they describe. The properties most fit for defining and distinguishing the several species, are not always those that are most useful to be known. To discover and to communicate the uses of natural substances in life, and in the arts, is no doubt that part of the business of a naturalist which is the most important; and the systematic arrangement of them is chiefly to be valued for its subserviency to this end. This every judicious naturalist will grant.
    But, on the other hand, the labour is not to be despised, by which the road to an useful and important branch of knowledge is made easy in all time to come; especially when this labour requires both extensive knowledge and great abilities. . . . There is an intrinsic beauty in arrangement, which captivates the mind, and gives pleasure, even abstracting from its utility.
This passage resonated with me as a music theorist. (And as a music theorist, I often say that things that agree with me “resonate” with me.) I work with systems: definitions of scales, chords, progressions, forms, embellishments, and so on. And I see many if not most music scholars – both in the field of theory and out – go to one of the two extremes. Either they despise the techniques of music theory as abstract and distanced from “real music,” or they dive in headfirst and embrace the most esoteric symbols and terms they can find or concoct.

Reid sensed himself alone in the field of philosophy, and I usually feel isolated in the community of musicologists. One sentence in Reid (again, just one sentence!) explains my frustration. I’ve assumed from the beginning that the systems of music theory, beautiful and captivating in themselves apart from their utility, explain something. I guess many of my colleagues don’t understand the utility of theory. Too often I’ve seen musicologists try to reach the end of explanation without the means of music theory. And far too often, I’ve been characterized as an “absolutist” or as “totally committed to the structure of the piece.” In all my publications, I’ve said things that should make it clear that I view theoretical structure in a much larger context. But I guess those parts haven’t resonated with my readers.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Christian Enjoyment

Spring Break. Grandchildren. Short post.

Tertullian lived and wrote his Apology before Constantine, during the time when Christians in the Roman empire regularly received reactions ranging everywhere from neighbors’ frown to lion’s gaping smiles. He starts his defense of the Christian faith with a tentative joke: you Romans seem threatened by Christians, but surely you’re not a afraid of a little book. So Tertullian starts right out by turning the tables; it may be the Christians getting killed, he argues, but the Romans act like they think they’re the weaker force. Your accusations are groundless, Tertullian points out, and show your ignorance of Christianity. Why are you afraid to learn the truth about us since you value knowledge? Your judgments are immoral, since you punish us for admitting who we are but let us go if we deny our faith in Christ. Why do you reward lies when you value truth? It must be that you’re afraid of the word “Christian.” But why do you act in fear of the name of Christ, when you Romans value courage?

I often think Christianity must be easier in times of persecution. The lines are clearer, for one thing. Tertullian can claim that no person convicted of theft or murder was also guilty of the crime of admitting to being a Christian. But Tertullian’s fellow Christians, as strictly moral as he describes them, weren’t dour, joyless, curmudgeons who looked down on fun and pleasure. You Romans call us useless, he says, but we make and buy and sell and enjoy all the pleasant things of the marketplace. We don’t go to the games or the brothels or the temple feasts to buy them. But we contribute stuff, money, and pleasure to the Roman economy, so what’s the problem? This week, this Christian is enjoying his grandkids. And, yes, I’m contributing extra money to the marketplace.

Thursday, March 13, 2014


A few weeks ago, I read in the introduction to Husserl’s Crisis of European Sciences that translating the work was especially difficult because (1) it was written in German, (2) it is a work of philosophy, (3) it was by Husserl, and (4) it was his last, unfinished work. Each of the four factors contributed to the difficulty of the task, said the translator, and I was relieved to find someone fluent in German admitting that German-language writing tends to be opaque. Or let’s say that if German authors write clearly, it is a clarity that doesn’t work with English-speaking readers.

Just after I finished the first half of Husserl, a friend of mine told me that she was having trouble making sense of a particular excerpt of Bonhoffer. Grace transcends the difference between law and gospel, Pastor B. says. It sounds good, but what does it mean? The rest of the paragraph offered no help. Maybe German speakers process sentences like that in some way different from mine, and go away enlightened. I went away puzzled.

Two days later, I talked about the whole subject to a friend working on a Ph.D. in philosophy. (Wow! That phrase is as redundant as “ATM machine” or “PIN number.”) He made the observation that English analytical philosophers of the last century or so look at continental philosophy and just scratch their philosophizing heads.

I’m just reporting my recent experience of funny coincidences. I don’t mean to dismiss an entire language (although I adore Mark Twain’s dismissal). But I have to say (if I’m going to keep a blog, anyway, I have to say it) that last week I opened Scotsman Thomas Reid’s Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man -- originally written in English -- and felt the cool rush of clarity flow over my face. I wrote in my notes, “After one day, I already feel that I have a basic understanding what eighteenth-century Common Sense philosophy is all about.” That level of understanding contrasts pretty starkly with my total befuddlement after reading half of Husserl. 

OK, I’m not totally befuddled. Husserl finally states his point on page 100, the last page I read last month: he intends to correct the problem created by Descartes and the flawed answer offered by Kant, and in doing so, he will establish the foundation from which to solve “all philosophical problems.” And now here’s the latest in a string of coincidences. Reid, like Husserl, talks about Descartes and criticizes him for almost exactly the same reason. He doesn’t say he’s going to replace Kant’s flawed answer, but he does say, with Kant, that Hume’s conclusions from Descartes’s premises are unacceptable, and then he offers a solution that isn’t Kant’s. So I think I’m going to find that they end up saying something very similar. I put Reid and Husserl together on the reading plan when I drew it up eight years ago, with no idea how well they would go together. But go together they do – so well, in fact, that I’m wondering if I even need to finish Husserl.

Oh, who am I kidding! The second half of Husserl in on my calendar, so of course I’ll read it.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Keats's Melancholy

Many poets write in praise of beauty. Many have written in praise of God or of a particular person. Poets have written in praise of nature, wisdom, love. But melancholy? Thomas Hardy’s melancholy runs deep, but he offers songs of regret, not of praise. But John Keats actually wrote an “Ode on Melancholy.” It starts as an urgent response to a suicide wish: “No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist / Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine.” The second of its three stanzas still sounds like a trope on the common encourager’s advice to stop and smell the roses. It advises the recipient, in fact, to “glut thy sorrow on a morning rose.” The surprise, though, comes in the third stanza:

She [i.e., Melancholy] dwells with Beauty – Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu . . . .
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine.

All beauty and joy must end, and then melancholy surely follows. Therefore, only the soul that knows melancholy, Keats argues, has experienced joy to its end. So go on and burst the grape!

In “Ode to a Nightingale,” the bird’s song makes the poet’s heart ache from “being too happy” that the bird never has to experience human sorrow. Sorrow about being happy about being sad. Keats and Sally Sparrow would get along just fine. After all this, it should come as no surprise then that Keats takes the stereotype of the poet writing in honor of spring and turns it on its daisy-covered head by writing “To Autumn.” After just two stanzas, the reader sees the oranges and reds of the pumpkin patch and the dying leaves, smells the newly reaped hay, feels the dry fading heat on the skin. And then Keats proffers his challenge to the poets of wildflowers and rain in these lines spoken to Autumn:

Where are the songs of Spring? Aye, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music, too –

What a shame Keats never got a chance to finish Hyperion. The would-be epic starts with a view of Saturn sitting alone and melancholy, regretting his fall from power at the hand of his son, Jove. After reading his famous odes, I see the frozen, helpless characters from the Grecian urn here. I hear the fading song of the nightingale. I can taste the melancholy grape in the temple of dying beauty. But soon a couple of the Titans start concocting a plan to rise up and take revenge on the ruling gods. What would have happened had Keats lived to write another three thousand lines? On second thought, it’s good that the poem never saw its completion; we might have had a happy ending that spoiled the mood.

Monday, March 3, 2014

A Tale of Two Meanings

You may not think of Charles Dickens as a writer of allegory, but allegorical elements find their way into many of his novels. When Little Nell, for instance, leads her grandfather through the fires and smokestacks of industrial central England and finally finds peace in a church in the northern dales, it isn’t hard to see the episode as a parallel to a spiritual story of passage through and out of Hell and into the rest of Paradise. As another example, at the end of Bleak House, Mrs Clennam leaves her dark house to ask Amy’s forgiveness just before the old house falls to a heap; the allegory of seeking forgiveness in order to escape eternal destruction is clear.

Nowhere does Dickens develop Christian allegory as extensively as in A Tale of Two Cities. “In short,” as Dickens’s own Wilkins Micawber would say, the allegory centers around two spiritual themes: sin and redemption. The token of sin in the novel is the aristocratic system. The French aristocrats – represented mainly by the cruel and callous Marquis d’Evrémonde – abuse, starve, overwork, torture, and kill the people on their estates. Here sin partly represents itself since the pride and self-obsession of the aristocrats makes them desperately wicked. But the aristocracy itself signifies further aspects of sin. Like sin, aristocratic life looks pleasant at first; Charles Darnay says.“To the eye it is fair enough . . . ; but seen in its integrity, under the sky, and by the daylight, it is a crumbling tower of waste, mismanagement, extortion, debt, mortgage, oppression, hunger, nakedness, and suffering.” Like sin, the aristocracy leaves even those who reap its privileges enslaved to it; Charles (nephew and unwilling heir to the Marquis) says that he is “bound to a system that is frightful to me, responsible for it, but powerless in it.” Finally, like sin, the aristocracy carries a death sentence (once the Revolution starts) and passes down by heredity; even Darney’s little daughter has her name knitted into Mme Defarge’s secret rolls of the doomed.

Redemption comes about by Sydney’s sacrificial act. Sydney looks like Charles, a fact that saves Charles’s life on more than one occasion. The likeness calls to mind passages of Scripture such as this from the letter to the Hebrews: “Jesus had to be made like us, his brothers and sisters, in every way.” Sydney goes to the prison where Charles is held just before his death, makes him faint with chloroform, and then changes clothes with him. More Biblical words seem to run through the events: “For he has made him, who knew no sin, to be sin for us,” and “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” The man with the key (having been persuaded by Sydney earlier) takes away the man who now looks like Sydney, leaving the real Sydney in the dungeon to wait for the tumbril that will carry him to his execution. Then, in the last pages, Sydney bravely dies in Charles’s place on the guillotine. (Do I need to cite Scripture on that one?)

A Tale of Two Cities doesn’t read like the most famous Christian allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress. For one thing, Dickens’s story makes sense on its surface level. No random giants that only occupy one particular field. No sloughs that people walk through instead of just walking around. No pleasant inns run by godly people who inexplicably don’t have to make the pilgrimage to Celestial City. But also, in Dickens’s novel, the spiritual themes don’t always shine in the forefront. The book has humor, love, satire, and a little adventurous action as well as death and resurrection. And that means that the book works very well at two levels. In other words, the novel can be read and understood in either of the two Cities.