Archive for October, 2013

Dying at the right time

I possess a fairly lackluster memory, for which in my wiser moments I am thankful. One result of this is that I often find myself remembering a few striking words from some author or another, while all recollection of the context in which they occurred recedes into nothingness. Consequently, they come to take on a new meaning for me, forming attachments and connections the original author no doubt never intended. Nietzsche is a frequent victim of this.

As I was reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Young American” today, Nietzsche’s dictum, “die at the right time!” wormed its way into my head. Much in it is still worm, no doubt, but it did evolve a bit in the direction of man, taking on some new resonances in the context of Emerson’s essay. Because I had no terribly interesting thoughts about the essay (due perhaps to the foul mood I’ve been mired in all day), and because I promised myself I would write about each Emerson piece as I read it, this post will detail briefly these resonances. Page references are to the Library of America edition of Emerson’s Essays & Lectures, as usual.

Nietzsche’s relating dying to an appropriate time is nothing new. We naturally conceive death as having its time: consider the acceptance of death signified by the phrase, “my time has come.” What makes Nietzsche’s quote striking (and I do not intend to suggest that he was the first to do this) is that it takes the form of an imperative: it is a command to action. Now one is not to passively await his time, but rather is to actively ensure his time does not pass unaccompanied by his also passing.

I recalled this phrase when I arrived at Emerson’s discussion of feudalism and trade in “The Young American”.

Feudalism had been good, had broken the power of the kings, and had some good traits of its own; but it had grown mischievous, it was time for it to die, and, as they say of dying people, all its faults came out. (220)

This operates in the passive mode: Feudalism’s time had come, and so it had to die. Indeed, Emerson talks of the transition as the result of a beneficent power whose results are independent of human efforts. Trade, which replaces feudalism, is equally “but for a time” (221); it too must one day die.

But activity comes into the picture, for humans cannot help but act, and, being the pathologically reflective beings we are, we cannot help but obsess over how best to act. So Emerson says,

Our part is plainly not to throw ourselves across the track, to block improvement, and sit till we are stone, but to watch the uprise of successive mornings, and to conspire with the new works of new days. (221)

We have, then, an active role to play in bringing about the death of what needs to die. Yes, this is like watching the sun rise each morning: things will manage without our help, but nonetheless we ought to actively conspire with these new works.

There is a venerable tradition of likening the mind to a city, and I suggest that something of the sort is going on under the surface of this essay. By which I mean that really it is not going on in this essay at all (that I found, at least), but that it is a natural way of reading the essay if the rest of Emerson’s work is kept in mind. For Emerson conceives our selves as very much like institutions. The self is created in the creative act, the experimental act that expands the boundaries of what came before. But as the self congeals, as it grows mischievous, it comes time for it to die, and our task is not to throw ourselves across the track to save it, but to hasten its death and draw around ourselves a new self.

When is it time for an institution—whether social or mental—to die? What is it for such an institution to grow mischievous? I think we can extract an answer from a comment Emerson makes late in the essay.

Instead of the open future expanding here before the eye of every boy to vastness, would they like the closing in of the future to a narrow slit of sky, and that fast contracting to be no future? (228-9)

When there lies in front of us an open future expanding to vastness, all is well. But when the future contracts first to a narrow slit and then to nothing, then it is time to die. As Kafka puts it, in his “Little Fable” (my translation):

“Oh,” said the mouse, “the world is becoming narrower with every day. At first, it was so broad that I was afraid; I ran along and was happy that I finally saw walls to the right and left in the distance, but these long walls hasten toward one another so rapidly that I am already in the final chamber, and there in the corner stands the trap, into which I am running.” – “You have only to change the direction you run,” said the cat, and ate it.

Is science rational?

2013/10/18 3 comments

The title of this post suggests a polemic of some form or another, whether in defense of or as an attack on science. The reality of this post will disappoint those feisty souls who delight in the witty barbs the polemicist uses to replace reasons, but may perhaps be of interest to those interested instead in an exploration of an intriguing historical topic. Scientific inquiry today is taken to be the pinnacle of rational thought, yet according to one established tradition of the use of the term “Reason”, contemporary scientific thought has no part in it. And this indicates that for science to reach the point where it could be seen as the paradigm of rational thought, there had to be a substantial reconsideration of what it is to be rational.

These reflections grow out of my reading for the human/animal seminar that I’ve been taking this semester. As such they reflect my limited and partial reading in the history of thought more, perhaps, than they reflect history itself. But with that caveat firmly in mind I may perhaps proceed in a free and incautious manner. I will draw particularly heavily on readings from Coleridge (discussed in my previous post), as well as J.S. Mill’s essay on Coleridge, which more or less makes the point I will be making a century and a half in advance. [Coleridge’s “Theory of Life” citations are the same as in the earlier essay. Coleridge’s “The Friend” citations are to a version of whose origin I am ignorant, though it is probably on Google Books or Mill citations are to the pages in this PDF.]

In an earlier post on Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, I drew on readings from this same seminar to make the point that telling someone they cannot rise above their imagination is tantamount to calling them beastly, to reducing them to the animal. This same objection appears in Coleridge, in an argument, as usual, against materialism. The system of materialism is described, by Coleridge, as “the exclusion of all modes of existence which the theorist cannot in imagination, at least, finger and peep at!” (“Theory of Life”, 45) In this essay, Coleridge doesn’t make much of this, but in Essay V of “The Friend”, it becomes clear that this is supposed to reduce the materialist to a beast. Coleridge there defines cognitive faculties by their objects. The imagination is sensual, is concerned precisely with those objects that may be fingered and peeped at. Reason, by contrast, is concerned with the knowledge of spiritual objects: “the Universal, the Eternal, and the Necessary” and “God, the Soul, eternal Truth” (“The Friend”, 266).

From this, it is an easy deduction to conclude that Reason and materialism are incompatible. If there are no spiritual objects, there is no Reason. Materialism says there are no spiritual objects. So materialism says there is no Reason.

Where does science slot into this picture? For Coleridge it is a matter of Reason. Recall from my previous post his anti-realism about quantitative science and his realism about qualitative science. This distinction is fleshed out (though not in these terms) in “The Friend”. Coleridge makes a threefold distinction between Sense, which takes in impressions from the environment, Understanding, which organizes these impressions under concepts and rules (giving us experience), and Reason, which subsumes experience under “ABSOLUTE PRINCIPLES or necessary LAWS” (“The Friend”, 270). Mere induction on the basis of experience (which may give you quantitative, anti-realist science) is not yet reasoning. Reasoning requires the subsumption of experience under necessary laws.

Note that this changes the earlier deduction of the incompatibility of materialism and Reason. For Coleridge here is explicit: “Reason therefore, in this secondary sense, and used, not as a spiritual Organ but as a Faculty […] Reason, I say, or the scientific Faculty, is the Intellection of the possibility or essential properties of things by means of the Laws that constitute them” (“The Friend”, 270-1). So, insofar as materialism allows for a science with laws, it seems compatible with Reason. Now Coleridge thinks that Reason as a scientific faculty requires the spiritual aspect of Reason (it is, after all, a secondary aspect of Reason that is implicated in science), but if we drop this presupposition then at least this secondary sense of Reason seems compatible with materialist science.

Mill perceptively captures all of this. He characterizes the fight between the Benthamites and the Coleridgeans—Mill sees Bentham and Coleridge as the English heads of two competing tendencies—as follows: “Sensualism is the common term of abuse for the one philosophy, mysticism for the other. The one doctrine is accused of making men beasts, the other lunatics” (Mill, 405). Even more interesting, in light of the question I am raising, is what he says about the Coleridgean view of what happens to science given a materialist philosophy:

Even science, it is affirmed, loses the character of science in this view of it, and becomes empiricism; a mere enumeration and arrangement of facts, not explaining nor accounting for them: since a fact is only then accounted for, when we are made to see in it the manifestation of laws, which, as soon as they are perceived at all, are perceived to be necessary. These are the charges brought by the transcendental philosophers against the school of Locke, Hartley, and Bentham. (Mill, 407-8)

The charge, I want to say, sticks, at least to a very strong current of thought about science. (To say the charge sticks is not to accept the normative implication that this is a problem, of course.) Hume captured extremely well the difficulties with understanding experience as giving us access to necessity. We never perceive necessity, whether of a causal or law-like sort. We never see the truth of laws, but only individual phenomena that would be consistent with certain laws, did they exist. One might argue that the best explanation for why science works as well as it does is that there really are necessary laws of nature that “govern” (in a strong, causal sense) the phenomena studied by scientists. But such an inference without question goes beyond the content of the sciences themselves, and moreover seems of dubious compatibility with materialism, since such laws cannot be fingered or peeped at.

Thus I think there is a very real sense in which contemporary science has indeed rejected explanation in favor of description, has given up the search for necessary, governing laws, and has therefore given up its claim to be the product even of the secondary sense of Reason. And, as my examples adduced in the Melville post show, this conception of Reason has a long history that clearly predates the rise of modern science. For science to become the paradigm of rational thought that it is today, then, it had to throw off this history and stake out a new conception of ‘reason’ for itself.

Or so my limited grasp of history leads me to believe.

Two metaphors in Coleridge’s “Theory of Life”

2013/10/17 1 comment

UPDATE: For reasons that baffle me, this post has been cited as a source in a wikipedia article. If you were sent here from that, know that I am not at all an expert, merely an interested reader. I would not, if I were you, trust anything I say here.


My seminar on the boundary between humans and animals continues on to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, philosopher and poet, author of the long essay “Hints Towards the Formation of a More Comprehensive Theory of Life”. Here I want to explore two metaphors about the process of science as they arise in this essay. The essay may be read here, and page references are to that file.

Coleridge, in the “Theory of Life”, offers two quite different and quite interesting metaphors about the scientific process. The first metaphor, located in the essay’s first paragraph, is a call to rigor:

The positions of science must be tried in the jeweller’s scales, not like the mixed commodities of the market, on the weigh-bridge of common opinion and vulgar usage. (21)

The jeweler’s scales here represent accuracy and precision, as opposed to the much blunter tools of common opinion and vulgar usage. A further undercurrent of the metaphor is its relationship to honesty: accuracy and precision in this context are not purely descriptive virtues, but rather are connected to the discovery of the true value of the jewel. On the market, by contrast, the confusion created by common opinion and vulgar usage allows for swindling and deception. The essay begins by describing Coleridge’s opponents: those who have earlier attempted to define life, but have done so in a way more reminiscent of the market than the jeweler’s scales. The first metaphor, then, is not just a call to rigor; it is a reproach.

The second metaphor comes much later, and has quite a different tenor. It arises in the course of a friendly critique of John Abernethy’s theory of life:

In Mr. Abernethy’s Lecture on the Theory of Life, it is impossible not to see a presentiment of a great truth. He has, if I may so express myself, caught it in the breeze: and we seem to hear the first glad opening and shout with which he springs forward to the pursuit. But it is equally evident that the prey has not been followed through its doublings and windings, or driven out from its brakes and covers into full and open view. (65)

This is a much richer metaphor than the first. In the first, accuracy is achieved by the use of a precise instrument that measures the relevant quantity exactly. But what is to be measured is given: Coleridge says nothing of the extraction of the jewel. Here, by contrast, finding the truth is not a matter of calm measurement. It is a matter of a strategic and perhaps even dangerous pursuit against a worthy adversary. And, while Coleridge thinks Abernethy has failed in his pursuit, this failure is nothing like that of his earlier targets, who have failed even to rise above the discourse of the marketplace.

Why this difference in metaphors? The difference in tone may be attributed to Coleridge’s differing levels of respect for his targets. But what about the difference in content, between the hunt and the jeweler’s scales? What I want to suggest is that this difference in content is crucially related to Coleridge’s views about the aims of science and the status of scientific theories, and cannot be understood in isolation from them.

Sprinkled throughout the essay are various anti-realist remarks about quantitative scientific theorizing, sometimes at an abstract level and sometimes connected to particular theories. Thus, early in the essay, Coleridge remarks on the theory of “the French chemists” that it remains the dominant theory because of “the absence of a rival sufficiently popular to fill the throne in its stead” and not from “the continuance of an implicit belief in its stability” (23). This is a straightforwardly anti-realist attitude toward the theory: it is simply waiting to be replaced by a successor. Coleridge later generalizes the point: “For the full applicability of an abstract science ceases, the moment reality begins” (51), which receives an extensive footnote that begins by noting that abstractions are the “only subject of all abstract sciences.”

We can understand this view in light of Coleridge’s argument that everything that is, is Life. This argument itself is worthy of detailed consideration, but here I note only Coleridge’s comments about quantity and quality.

Our reason convinces us that the quantities of things, taken abstractedly as quantity, exist only in the relations they bear to the percipient; in plainer words, they exist only in our minds, ut quorum esse est percipi. For if the definite quantities have a ground, and therefore a reality, in the external world, and independent of the mind that perceives them, this ground is ipso facto a quality… (38-39)

Quantity, for Coleridge, is inherently mind-dependent, whereas external reality is qualitative. Quantity is nothing more than a human abstraction from this qualitative reality. The quantitative sciences, then, are properly considered with an anti-realist attitude—unless they are grounded in some qualitative reality.

Now it is worthwhile to recall that the first metaphor arises precisely in the context of an anti-realist argument about existing theories of life: these theories are to be rejected as insufficiently precise and rigorous. They do not pass the test of the jeweler’s scales; they belong in the marketplace. Indeed, Coleridge explicitly says that may be “sufficient, perhaps, for the purpose of ordinary discrimination, but far too indeterminate and diffluent to be taken unexamined by the philosophic inquirer” (21). But now consider the metaphor again. The jeweler’s scales are precisely a quantitative instrument—and so the jeweler’s measurements are inherently mind-dependent abstractions.

Coleridge, however, wants to claim for his theory more than the sort of anti-realist success of the abstract sciences. Why, then, a metaphor that, by his criteria, only points toward the quantitative sciences? Some light is shed on this by the presence of a frequent bugbear in Coleridge’s essay: the materialist. Coleridge on numerous occasions points out the impossibility of a materialist account of Life—that is why Coleridge’s vitalist alternative is needed. (Note that Coleridge is a strange sort of vitalist in that his vitalism unifies the organic and physical sciences rather than serving as a basis for their disunity.) Nevertheless, Coleridge does not deny the genuine scientific successes of materialistic theories. It is merely that these successes are quantitative and not qualitative—and so deserving of an anti-realist attitude.

Here the second metaphor comes in. No longer are we in the back room of the jewelry shop. We are out in the field, hunting. The pursuit of truth is now mixed with sweat and blood. In an almost literal way, this metaphor puts flesh on the first. Moreover, it comes precisely in the context of a realist argument. While he critiques Abernethy, Coleridge is concerned to say that Abernethy nonetheless has the presentiment of a great truth. Unlike the jeweler, Abernethy is on the path to truth, and not mere abstraction. Coleridge, by using the hunt metaphor, can thus characterize his own view as being simply further down this path than Abernethy’s view, thereby securing a qualitative, realist basis for his theory of life.

Emerson in conversation with Herder I: Scholars and the invention of language

This semester, I’ve been fortunate to be part of a fascinating seminar on the ways in which philosophers (and others) have drawn the boundary between humans and ani­mals. This past week, we read Johann Gottfried von Herder’s Treatise on the Origin of Lan­guage. As the title suggests, it proposes to explain the origin of human language, involving along the way a great deal of reflection on the relation between human and animal language. Specifically, it suggests a human origin of language, against the hypothesis that language had a divine origin. I confess I do not find a great deal of value in the essay if it is viewed solely as an attempt to discern the historical origin of language. That seems to me a straightforwardly scientific question, and from that perspective Herder’s style of argument seems more confused than anything (of course this is an anachronistic assessment). Nevertheless, the essay is so expansive that within it I can find a hundred leads in interesting directions. It is pregnant with suggestions and simply calls for a little midwifery to draw them out.

This post is an attempt to do that. My method for doing that is to place Herder in a conversation with Emerson—specifically, I think that Herder makes a point that sits in an interesting relationship with Emerson’s project, and that what Emerson is doing may be illuminated by looking at Herder. I do not claim that Herder influenced Emerson—I do not know whether or not Emerson read Herder’s treatise, nor do I have any reason to suspect that he did, and moreover I have some reason to suspect that he did not. Perhaps soon I will devote a post to reflecting more on this method of proceeding, but for now I shall simply proceed. Theorizing may follow action. (Page references to Herder are to the Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy Edition of his Philosophical Writings.)

In the passage I want to consider, Herder is concerned to show that language did not arise as a particularly philosophical event, as the result of slow, inefficient reason.

Oh! If the human being is only destined to save himself from everything in such a slow, weak, inadequate manner … Through reason? Through reflection? How slowly this reflects! And how fast, how pressing his needs are! His dangers! (134)

This cuts directly against the philosopher:

Set a philosopher, born and raised in society, who has only trained his head for thinking and his hand for writing, set him suddenly outside all the protection and reciprocal comforts that society affords him for his one-sided services – he is supposed to seek his own means of subsistence in an unfamiliar land, and fight against the animals, and be his own protecting deity in everything. How helpless! (134)

The true origin of language must come from elsewhere:

The first experiences are not cold, slowly reasoned, carefully abstracting experiments like the leisurely, lone philosopher makes when he creeps in pursuit of nature in its hidden course and no longer wants to know that but how it works. This was precisely what concerned nature’s first dweller least. […] Is not his timidity combined with his weakness, and his awareness combined with all the subtlety of his forces of soul, enough by itself to provide him with a comfortable condition, since nature herself acknowledged that it was adequate for this? Since, therefore, we have no need at all of a timid, abstract study-philosopher as the inventor of language, since the primitive natural human being who still feels his soul, like his body, so entirely of a single piece is more to us than any number of language-creating academies, and yet is anything but a scholar … why on earth, then, would we want to take this scholar as a model? (135)

Here I think the connection to Emerson can be made. We see that, for Herder, it is the “primitive natural human being who still feels his soul… entirely of a single piece” who is the inventor of language, and not the philosopher. I want to understand this in a poetic or spiritual way: there is, Herder suggests, a certain primacy to the language that is developed in situations fraught with danger or treasure. This language, wrapped as it is in fear, desire, and delight, comes before the cool, abstract, disinterested language of the natural philosopher (just prior to the quotation above, Herder discusses Linnaeus). Praise the virtues of scientific language as you will: underneath it lies the language of passion, of man in a dangerous but rich environment. The scholar has no part in the origin of language.

I am not confident I know how to describe, succinctly at least, Emerson’s overarching project. But one strand of this project I think can safely be understood as an attempt to characterize the poetic invention of language. Physical things, for Emerson, are signs for spiritual facts, and the poet is someone who sees behind the material to the ideal, who, however briefly, is in contact with the ideal and can speak its language. Here Emerson runs together invention and discovery: it is by creative invention that we discover spiritual truth. The poet is thus someone who invents/discovers language. Thus one node in the constellation of images Emerson uses to attempt to approach a description of the ideal is through and through concerned with the origin of language, poetically understood.

Besides the poet, Emerson’s thought constantly returns to two other crucial figures. One is the rough, uncultivated man who is in close contact with the environment—Emerson here especially adverts to the image of the farmer. This person, in society, is probably the closest thing there is to Herder’s “primitive natural human being”. For Emerson, this character is generally brusque, direct, unconstrained by the general norms of etiquette that require appropriate levels of polite dishonesty.

Lastly, there is the central character of one of Emerson’s most famous pieces, “The American Scholar”. There, Emerson investigates the prospects of scholarship, its aims and the demands it makes on the scholars themselves. Here the scholar is not Herder’s bloodless character, cool and abstract, but someone who seems to possess the virtues of both the poet and the farmer. How does this happen?

What you notice as you read further and further into Emerson is that the figures he describes are never fully distinct. They seem, more than anything, to be aspects of a single, ideal person. Individual, actual people for Emerson are always partial: one of his most vivid images is of the person who is all ear, or all eye, or all hand. Such a person has developed a single organ out of proportion to all the rest, and so is deformed. Actual poets, farmers, and scholars are all deformed in just this way. The radical vision of “The American Scholar” is of a scholar who is equally poet and farmer—thus a scholar who is an inventor of language.

Thus we can see Emerson as responding (in the space of ideas if not in history) to Herder’s argument that the scholar cannot be the inventor of language. Emerson, on one level, more or less grants the point: actual, deformed human beings are not both scholars and inventors of language. But Emerson attempts to show, despite this, the possibility of the scholar who is proportioned, and so is as much farmer and poet as scholar. Emerson shows the prospects of the scholar who is the inventor of language.

Only rarely does the scholar arise who fulfills this vision. And in his more skeptical moods, Emerson himself suspects the ideal is unachievable, except perhaps in spurts and gasps. Nonetheless, the poetic, passionate invention of language remains the (Emersonian) scholar’s task. Emerson has recovered that possibility from Herder’s challenge.