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Celebrating thought? Or sweetening it?

2014/02/23 8 comments

My month long hiatus from Emerson, begun upon the completion of my readings of his Essays: First Series, I have mercifully allowed myself to bring to end. I bathe again in these cleansing waters, and through their efforts may come to see myself—perhaps, I hope—more clearly. Upon diving into “The Poet”, first of his Essays: Second Series, I immediately ran into an old thought: that form and content are inseparable.

For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem,—a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing. (Em. 450, Library of America volume of his Essays & Lectures)

The notion that, in poetry, and even literary prose, the form is not separable from the content, but contributes ineliminably to it, is perfectly correct, perhaps even obvious, yet is so often repeated as to have become essentially empty. But Emerson has a way of making old thoughts new, of recovering what always remains new within them, but which has been obscured by their descent into the fogs of platitudicity. (In this way, he serves to liberate these thoughts from the prisons that have congealed around them—thereby “He unlocks our chains, and admits to us a new scene” [Em. 463], and so is a poet himself.) What results when Emerson dispels this fog? I want to approach the question via a critique of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), for reasons that will become apparent by the time I have reached my end.

Lucretius, as an Epicurean poet, finds himself in a bind. For, as an Epicurean, he must stick to the reasoning that established atomism—this is to be discovered by logic, and not invented by poetic artifice. The poetic form of his work, that is, cannot contribute any content to the Epicurean view, cannot play any role in the actual thinking of Epicurean thoughts. Yet, as a poet, he must justify the poetic form of the work, an especially difficult task if that form is more liable to obscure the arguments than enhance them. We may suspect that Lucretius’ real reason for his use of poetic devices and form is the sheer joy of it: “Joyfully I visit virgin springs and draw their water; joyfully I cull unfamiliar flowers.” (Lucr. I.928—I am using the translation by Martin Ferguson Smith, published by Hackett.) Yet he also gives us a more practical reason for his technique. He is writing the poem to Memmius, in an attempt to convert him and so save him. (For all their well-motivated, well-placed distaste for religion, the Epicureans could nonetheless be quite “religious” in their own behavior. This is not a criticism.) Lucretius is well aware that Epicurean doctrines, as materialistic doctrines always are, are liable to be off-putting. His poetic form is a correction for this:

Doctors who try to give children foul-tasting wormwood first coat the rim of the cup with the sweet juice of golden honey; their intention is that the children, unwary at their tender age, will be tricked into applying their lips to the cup and at the same time will drain the bitter draught of wormwood—victims of beguilement, but not of betrayal, since by this means they recover strength and health. I have a similar intention now, since this philosophy of ours often appears somewhat off-putting to those who have not experienced it, and most people recoil back from it, I have preferred to expound it to you in harmonious Pierian poetry and, so to speak, coat it with the sweet honey of the muses. (Lucr. I.938-948)

Lucretius’ poetic form is a sweet, external coating, but it has no impact on the contents inside. It is a bit of benevolent trickery: Lucretius hopes Memmius will, because of the poetic sweetness, imbibe the bitter Epicurean contents before he knows what he is drinking—a bit of paternalism justified, if at all, by the Epicurean promise to cure fear and anxiety.

Here is a philosophy of poetry that rejects—in a manner which is perfectly justified—the old thought in which I claim Emerson has found something new. Lucretius’ self-understanding of his application of poetic form is a good one, indeed the only one possible to an Epicurean, and if there is something lacking in this self-understanding we may suspect there is something lacking in the Epicurean philosophy generally. But the mere thought that form and content are inseparable is not enough to show anything lacking: better to give up that thought than Epicurus’ insights—after all, the loss of a platitude is no loss at all. To bring out the conflict, then, we shall have to understand what is new in Emerson’s thought—both come to light together.

For the Epicurean, there are only two sources of value in the world: pleasure provides positive value, and is to be sought, and pain provides negative value, and is to be avoided. Of course, to seek pleasure and to avoid pain are not at all the same thing, any more than to seek truth and avoid error are the same, and the Epicureans take their stand: avoid pain even at the expense of certain pleasures. (One can, in this respect, liken them to Descartes, who makes the analogous move for the case of truth and falsity: avoid all error even if it comes at the expense of believing any truth.) To this end, the Epicureans make a twofold division of pleasures: there are kinetic pleasures and static pleasures. (They also make a threefold division of pleasures into natural + necessary, natural + unnecessary, and unnatural + unnecessary, but this division will not concern me.) Kinetic pleasures, such as the sating of hunger by eating, involve, first, a painful departure from some equilibrium state (in this case, being sated), followed by, second, a pleasant return to that state. The pleasure lies not in the state itself, but in the return to it—in that way, kinetic pleasures are possible only if they are preceded by pain. For this reason, the Epicurean says, they are to be minimized.

Static pleasures, by contrast, are those pleasures one feels simply in virtue of being in the equilibrium state. As they involve no departure, they involve equally no pain: they are pure pleasure. A paradigmatic example, I take it, would be the pleasure that results from being in a state of Epicurean tranquility: to know the nature of the world, and to know there is nothing to fear in death—this is to share in the blessed, perfectly undisturbed happiness of the gods. It is to be a god on earth. (We shall return to the Epicurean gods.) Lucretius’ goal is to bring Memmius to this state, but he can do so only by administering bitter medicine. Thus his sweet coating is needed. It is not part of the thought, however, and once Memmius is converted, the form becomes unnecessary, for the thought itself will sustain him, will bring him peace.

This twofold division of pleasures, which Emerson never, to my knowledge, brings up explicitly or implicitly, nonetheless seems to me the primary deficiency in the Epicurean view, from an Emersonian standpoint. The notion of a static pleasure implies a stable state, an equilibrium threatened, to be sure, by external forces, but which may be defended and preserved, and tranquility maintained. Emerson may perhaps allow such pleasures, and certainly would rank them above kinetic pleasures of the sort the Epicureans denounce, but for him there is a third pleasure, the highest: the pleasure of transition.

But nature has a higher end, in the production of new individuals, than security, namely, ascension, or, the passage of the soul into higher forms. (Em. 458)

The persistent worry, for Emerson, is that any stable state, any purported equilibrium, will congeal into a prison—and then it hardly deserves the name “equilibrium.” It is for this reason that I said above only that Emerson “may perhaps allow” static pleasures—in much of his thought, in fact, he questions their very possibility. But even allowing for security’s possibility, there is still a higher insecurity. The soul ascends, not once, but perpetually, for falling follows each ascension. Where, for the Epicurean, there is a single metamorphosis by which one attains a perfectly blessed state, for the Emersonian there is only the perpetual perfection of oneself, without ever achieving a perfect state. “For, the metamorphosis once seen, we divine that it does not stop.” (Em. 461) The Emersonian distrusts the state attained in favor of the state yet to be attained: each attained state is merely initial; power and joy lie in the movement of attaining, not in the having attained—“in the shooting of the gulf”, he says elsewhere (“Self-Reliance”). (I must confess my debt, in this language of attained and unattained, to Stanley Cavell’s marvelous Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome.) Kinetic pleasure—for what else could this be called?—thus regains its priority over static pleasure.

This difference in ranking of pleasures is given voice in the Epicurean and Emersonian treatments of the gods. Epicurus, longing to dispel the fears associated with the gods of Greek mythology, imagined perfectly blessed, perfectly material creatures that could not be disturbed by the wailings of our prayers. Human happiness does not require intervention by the gods, but imitation of them. With the exception of his mortality, an insignificant difference, Epicurus was literally a god on earth, by Epicurean lights. Emerson, by contrast, will have no truck with perfection and stability in his gods: he praises the gods of the old mythology precisely for their defects—Vulcan’s lameness, Cupid’s blindness—and for the way the gods “use[d] defects and deformities to a sacred purpose”—“to signify exuberances.” (Em. 455)

Because kinetic pleasure, in this Emersonian sense, is nothing other than a change in form, we can understand why thought must create its own form, must not be something independent of form, capable of sweet or bitter expression. “The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression.” (Em. 448) It is “Man Thinking”—as Emerson puts it elsewhere (“The American Scholar”)—who is so transformed, and there is no separation between the thinking and the being transformed. The thinking is the transition from the attained and imprisoning to the unattained and liberating form. The form, then, is integral to the liberation, and so to the thought. Thus we can see what is new in the Emersonian thought, while at the same time accepting what is impoverished in the Epicurean philosophy.

But here I run aground, again, on my old difficulty—already explored at the end of my series on Prudence and Poetry, but not there resolved, and so still an open wound, exposed to infection. I have not singled out Lucretius for critique by accident: it is he, or rather Epicurus, who was perhaps the first to create this wound. My trouble is that I cannot simply follow Emerson, and abandon Lucretius. For while there is too much good in Emerson’s vision of life for me to give it up, there is too much right in Epicurean ontology for it to yield so easily. I worry, in short, that my love of Emerson is not compatible with my commitment to an (broadly) Epicurean ontology.

This conflict may be captured, at the most general level, by considering that Emerson is an idealist, of sorts, whereas Lucretius is a materialist. This comes out in the following phrase of Emerson’s, one of my favorites from “The Poet”: “For all men have the thoughts whereof the universe is the celebration.” (Em. 453) The universe celebrates human thoughts: what a beautiful image! How thoroughly idealist, however, perhaps even narcissistic (does the universe exist to celebrate us?)—and how utterly incompatible with the knowledge, which I take to be very well-established, that humanity is an accidental occurrence in a tiny region of a universe that does not celebrate anything at all, let alone our vast miseries and paltry joys.

I know that is our condition, yet I cannot give up the Emersonian vision. Every so often, I console myself with the thought that Emerson, perhaps, shared this knowledge—for instance, when he praises figures such as Pythagoras, Swedenborg, and Oken for having “introduce[d] questionable facts into [their] cosmogony” (Em. 462, my emphasis)—but in my sober moments I recognize these consolations as false, as desperate. I take more heart when Emerson speaks of the writer who “sees nature beneath him, and uses it as his exponent” (Em. 463), for does this not suggest an idealism that is located not in nature herself, but in the thinker’s use of nature? And is it not then compatible with a dull but correct materialist ontology? Or is this simply another false consolation?

I cannot say. This is the perpetual tension of my thought. Epicurus and Emerson do battle within me. One day, perhaps, they shall be reconciled, or one shall vanquish the other. In the meantime, I can only hope to use their war as the (unstable) foundation of my own ascent. I can only hope, that is, to put them to use as my own exponents.

For whom skepticism?

In Part Two of his Discourse on Method (I am using this edition), Descartes makes an analogy that I am sure does not originate with him, but which nonetheless I find quite intriguing. Descartes compares knowledge to architecture, though he does not introduce the comparison in this way.

Thus one sees that buildings undertaken and completed by a single architect are usually more attractive and better ordered than those which many architects have tried to patch up by using old walls that had been built for other purposes. (7)

No mention is here made of knowledge, but it soon comes out that that is Descartes’ target. Descartes wishes to set his own knowledge on firm foundations, and sees that to do this he will have to reject most of the collective knowledge around him. Why? Because, as “one will well understand,” “it is difficult to make things that are very finely crafted by laboring only on the works of others.” (7) If Descartes is to have, within himself, firmly established, well-founded knowledge, and if it is to be well arranged, he must labor at it himself, without building on the work of others.

Descartes is quick to insist that he is not advocating that, collectively, we tear down our knowledge and start anew. Even though our knowledge is like a city that has grown up over time, gradually expanding, without any central, organizing plan, just as it would be disastrous to raze the city and start anew, so too with our knowledge. Yet Descartes, even earlier, makes it clear that he is not advocating a general strategy, but rather is telling a sort of autobiography.

Thus my purpose here is not to teach the method that everyone ought to follow in order to conduct his reason well, but merely to show how I have tried to conduct my own. (2)

And he reiterates this later, in the context of his architectural analogy:

That is why I could in no way approve of those troublemaking and restless personalities who, called neither by their birth nor by their fortune to manage public affairs, are forever coming up with an idea for some new reform in this matter. […] My plan has never gone beyond trying to reform my own thoughts and building upon a foundation which is completely my own. (9)

What this reveals is that Descartes’ skeptical project is fundamentally individualistic. And of course, of course, the extremity to which he takes his individualism—to the point where he could build his knowledge on foundations entirely independent of the work of others—is a myth. But I think it not a terribly interesting myth, any more than it is interesting to point out to the devotee of Emersonian self-reliance that the self on which one relies is indelibly molded by influences remembered and unremembered. Emerson knows this as well as anyone, and Descartes, surely, knows it too.

For a long time I have more or less written off Descartes, my mind poisoned by a too eager, too undiscerning acceptance of American pragmatism—an encounter that has done me much good and equal ill, such that I cannot say on the whole whether it has been to my gain or my loss. I say poisoned because it created within me a caricature of Descartes as a ridiculous foundationalist whose project failed. Now I am sure his project does fail, at least in the form he put it forward, but in my recent re-encounter I have been struck by this individualistic tenor of his skepticism.

In a way, that may be the source of the pragmatists’ animosity to Descartes, for their philosophy, as I understand it, emphasizes the ineliminable sociality of knowledge, emphasizes inquiry as a social and not individual process. It is as if they read Descartes and took him to be recommending for society this skeptical method. At least, whatever the pragmatists themselves were doing, that is the imprint they left within me. But Descartes is doing nothing of the sort, quite self-consciously. He lets collective knowledge be and sets about work on himself. His skepticism is an individual project, and not a social one.

I have been digressing, but I think in a justified way, for the individualism of Cartesian skepticism is a sun supporting the orbit of many planets, and my thoughts have voyaged to each in turn. My central interest, however, is in the relevance of this Cartesian individualism today. Rereading the Discourse on Method these past few days is a case of good timing, for my thoughts had already been moving toward a consideration of the value of individual skepticism—prompted in part by my reading of Montaigne. Descartes has helped to crystallize them.

Individual knowledge and collective knowledge are distinct, more so today than in the time of Descartes. The total sum of human knowledge vastly outstrips what is to be found in any individual’s head—much of it, I suspect, resides only in books or journal articles, to be cited when needed, but otherwise out of mind. What does reside in a single individual’s head is a sliver, utterly insignificant, even if we consider the most knowledgeable people in the world. In terms of major effects in society, collective knowledge matters; individual knowledge more or less does not.

In the face of explosion of collective knowledge—which I admit I at times find quite alienating—what room is there for individual skepticism, of any sort? I think, in fact, that there is quite a bit. If one wishes to know a great deal, to keep up with new discoveries, and so forth, there is no end the resources by which one can do so, but the degree of specialization in the actual reports of experiments means that while one will be able to make true claims about what is going on in certain situations, one will not really know how those claims are evidentially supported, except in a cheap, toy way. Some have called the desire for such knowledge “low curiosity”—I do not wish to follow in this. But it is not for me.

It is for this reason that I think that there is a great deal of room for individual skepticism. If I hold myself to high standards as to what is to count as knowledge—even if my standards are not as high as Descartes’—then I must admit that what I know is negligible, a point in the face of all human knowledge. What standards? I would count myself as knowing only that for which I do not take on trust, that for which I clearly and deeply understand the reasoning that leads to it. I know what I have experienced, and I know a bit about William Sharp MacLeay—a 19th century entomologist on whom I am doing some research right now—but beyond that, I really know quite little.

What, then, of what I know on trust? For if I trust experts in particular fields, i.e. believe what they say, and if what they say is reliably true, do I not have justification for my beliefs? Yes, in a way, and whoever would have a great deal of knowledge must take solace in this line of argument. But I do not wish to relax my standards here. Rather, I would prefer to say that I know—because I have seen it firsthand—that this is what the experts say, without saying that I know not just what they say, but that what they say is so. This is a more or less “instrumentalist” way of taking expert testimony, and I cannot see that it does any harm.

Are there any advantages to this individual skepticism of mine—or, if ‘skepticism’ is the wrong word, this austerity of belief? Is it just a perverse exercise? I do not think so. For in fact I was somewhat misleading when I said that what is called “low curiosity” is not for me. In fact, I think it is my greatest vice, or one of them. I value knowing (with low standards) over discovering and understanding, and this stifles my thought. My individualistic project in regulating my own knowledge is an attempt to throw off these self-imposed shackles. It is my own method purely; I do not recommend it to anyone who does not belief she might find it useful.

Was Montaigne right to be a skeptic?

For my senior thesis in college, I wrote on scientific realism—roughly, the view that our best current theories are approximately true. This was a mistake from which I still have not extricated myself, but every so often it pays dividends. Most recently, this came in reading Michel de Montaigne’s “Apology for Raymond Sebond”, the longest piece in his Essays. (In my edition, the Everyman’s Library edition of his Complete Works, the Apology comes to 170 pages.) Montaigne (1533-1592), in defending a general skepticism, offers an argument that is remarkably similar to an argument prevalent in the scientific realism literature today. I have my doubts as to the contemporary cogency of that argument. But in Montaigne’s day, I think it was devastating—more devastating, in fact, than Montaigne allows.

The argument in question now goes by the name pessimistic meta-induction (PMI). Its classic statement is in Larry Laudan’s “A Confutation of Convergent Realism” (available here). Laudan, in response to those philosophers who think that scientific realism is the only hypothesis that adequately explains the success of science, adduces a long list of theories that were once successful, but have since been rejected. Clearly, he claims, their success must not have been the result of their approximate truth, since they were not approximately true. Moreover, if rejection seems to be the fate of the successful theories of the past, on what grounds can we treat our current theories as immune to the same fate? What breaks the induction from the fate of past theories to that of current theories?

There are plenty of ways a realist might respond to this argument, but that is not my concern here, at least not yet. Rather, I am interested in the version of this argument given by Montaigne, and in the question whether he was right to make that argument. Here is what he writes:

The sky and the stars have been moving for three thousand years; everybody had so believed, until it occurred to Cleanthes of Samos, or (according to Theophrastus) to Nicetas of Syracuse, to maintain that it was the earth that moved, through the oblique circle of the Zodiac, turning about its axis; and in our day Copernicus has grounded this doctrine so well that he uses it very systematically for all astronomical deductions. What are we to get out of that, unless that we should not bother which of the two is so? And who knows whether a third opinion, a thousand years from now, will not overthrow the preceding two? (521)

This example is precisely the sort of example that the proponent of PMI offers: formerly, people believed one option, now they believe another—what is to say that in the future they will not believe some as yet unknown third? And, indeed, Montaigne had to wait only 300 years (and change), not a thousand, for Einstein to say that neither the earth nor the sun moves absolutely, but only relative to a reference frame—pick the right frame and one can easily say the sun moves while they earth stands still. My philosophy of physics friends tell me that Einsteinian relativity does not yet sit comfortably with quantum mechanics—is a fourth option around the corner? But I am getting ahead of myself, am moving too much into the present.

For what I really want to know is whether Montaigne, in the 1580s, was right to be a skeptic, and whether this argument offered persuasive grounds. I believe he was. Here is Montaigne’s practical proposal that results from this argument:

Thus when some new doctrine is offered to us, we have great occasion to distrust it, and to consider that before it was produced its opposite was in vogue; and, as it was overthrown by this one, there may arise in the future a third invention that will likewise smash the second. (521)

There is something of an obvious response to this advice, and it is one way that I am tempted to respond to PMI: all of this talk of the past is idle, what matters is whether we have good reason now. If the reasons offered in favor of some view are sufficiently good, should we not believe it? What does it matter that the reasons offered for past views were not good? If we have good reason to believe the view on offer, then we have good reason to think there will not arise a third invention.

This problem arises for Montaigne in part because he does not, or at least not here (he does elsewhere in the essay), consider the reasons given in favor of the theory. Rather, we are simply offered the theory, and since people have been offering false theories for so long, we should not expect any different of the new.  This seems to be too superficial, to eschew the use of one’s own reason to assess the reasons given. In fact I don’t think Montaigne overlooks this (he says elsewhere that we should not accept any hypothesis unless reason places it above its rivals), but the objection still requires a response.

The response Montaigne can give is, I think, this. The reasons we have been offered in the past led only to confusion and instability, and the reasons we are given now, while different in content, are not different in kind. That is, you are offering the same sorts of reasons today as were offered us in the past. Even if your reasons are better than those of the past, our history of failure tells us that we are highly fallible reasoners—else we would never have been taken in by those old views with their poor reasons. So, grant that your reasons appear better—what confidence can that give me that they actually are better? What possible reason could I have to think that you are or I am or anyone else is a competent judge?

So long as the reasons used to support our views remains of the same kind, Montaigne’s argument is cogent and powerful. He was right to be a skeptic. Of course, one can argue that, with what is called the scientific revolution, things changed. We started offering new sorts of reasons, and this eliminated the instability, such that now we can be realists about our best current theories. Laudan’s PMI aims precisely to undermine this optimism, to show that instability has not diminished since the 16th century. Perhaps he is right, perhaps not. That is a live debate. But as far as Montaigne goes, I do think that skepticism was the right position for him to take, for he had an argument that could take on all comers.

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Addendum

I forgot, in my initial post, to explain why Montaigne’s skeptical argument is more devastating than he allows. The reason for this is that it applies equally to religion, a possibility that Montaigne does not explore. The closest he comes is in the following passage:

O God, what an obligation do we not have to the benignity of our sovereign creator for having freed our belief from the folly of those vagabond and arbitrary devotions, and having based it on the eternal foundation of his holy word. (531)

Montaigne has all the material for a skeptical argument of the same sort as before: look at how many “vagabond and arbitrary” devotions humanity has subjected itself to, and how many were believed to have an “eternal foundation”—why should Christianity be any different. But Montaigne, in characteristic fashion, places his Christianity above doubt: he applies his doubt relentlessly to the earthly, but not to the eternal. There is no reasoned justification of this limitation of the power of his argument. Hence it is more devastating than Montaigne allows. It is tempting to wonder whether Montaigne did not know this, and was simply prudent in not challenging the church, but that is pure speculation, and may be combatted even without invoking powerful skeptical tools.