A Lost Library


Mt. Chocorua, Sanford Robinson Gifford via Wikimedia Commons

American Philosophy: A Love Story had an utterly irresistible and all too hard-to-live-up-to premise.  It was this: John Kaag was a struggling philosophy postdoc when by pure chance he wandered onto the rural estate of a long dead Harvard don and into his nearly untouched library of rare books.  William Ernest Hocking, who died in 1966, would have known William James and Robert Frost, and studied under Josiah Royce and Edmund Husserl.  The library he built in the White Mountains of New Hampshire contained a vast trove of American philosophical and religious work as well as first editions of monuments going back to Kant, Hobbes, and Spinoza.  This is the stuff of dreams.  Although Kaag faced no rude awakening, and was instead invited to stay, camp, catalogue, and find a home for the collection, I’m afraid the rest of the book is somewhat paled in comparison.

Kaag chose to join the story of the library with two others.  One is Kaag’s own emotional rebuilding after divorcing his first wife.  It’s not for nothing that he was most drawn to the theme in American philosophy of what makes life worth living.   It makes me feel awfully hard hearted but this is the aspect of the book that works least well, for me anyhow.  I’m sure it’s a matter of perspective.  And now it occurs to me that it’s also no coincidence that Kaag names the sections of his book Hell, Purgatory, and Redemption after Dante’s Divine Comedy, a choice I was happy to just pass over, as it’s my least favorite epic.  (It’s enough of a stretch to imagine leaving Limbo when Homer, Socrates, the Saladin, et al. are hanging out there; I don’t remember if Dante mentions a library.)  Passages of a desperate, confessional bent seemed too abrupt and contrast weirdly with the gently enthusiastic tone of the history of philosophy, the other major theme.

Kaag laments somewhat the Americans’ secondary status viz the European greats; I don’t know if there’s really any helping it.  The philosophy is interesting enough, I suppose, and emphasizes a sort of proto existentialist angle: What becomes of human meaning and freedom after Darwin and physics?  The thread seems to drop, but I got the idea that some of the contacts between Hocking and his students and later French existentialists, testified to in Hocking’s letters, formed a part of Kaag’s actual research.   I don’t remember anything similar in the small part of William James’ Psychology that I read for school.  I found the biography more memorable.  Hocking was a member of the carpenters’ union in San Francisco during the rebuilding, working with redwood lumber so fresh “the sap would jump out if we hit them with a hammer”.  He would later enlist his philosopher friends as masons for his own library.


Is the Government a Machine?

I’ve had a running argument with a coworker on the subject of qualifications.  We both are or were Bernie supporters (it is a long time until November), but he likes to point out that Hillary Clinton is one of the most qualified candidates in recent memory, and I always take issue with that.  Then the other day the great Louis C. K. weighed in with a bit in which he compared Hillary to a qualified airline pilot, Bernie to the guy who wants the plane to stop at every house, and Trump, I guess, to the random asshole who wants to grab the controls and do barrel rolls.  I’m honestly interested if anyone wants to help me with my problem understanding qualifications.

First of all, when someone says that Hillary’s qualifications are the best, I have a hard time seeing how that’s not the same thing as an endorsement.  Yet my friend maintains that it is not the same thing, and that I should recognize her qualifications despite supporting the other candidate.  We’ve argued round and round about how years of experience in the Senate should be weighed against executive branch experience in the Department of State and in the White House.  It doesn’t help that I don’t actually know much about what the Secretary of State does.  In any case, it seems to me like the notion of qualifications is, in this case, so subjective that it makes as much sense to choose a president based on ideas as on years spent in various branches of government.  It makes sense to choose someone with a DDS to work on your teeth.  The notion of particular qualifications in politicians makes less sense to me.

Louis C. K.’s bit included a phrase that, I think, clarifies some of what I am concerned with.  He said that the government is a “dangerous mechanism”.  A plane, no doubt, is a dangerous mechanism.  But is our government a mechanism?  A plane is something that takes off and goes to a certain place.  Is that what our government does?  The government is powerful; the government is dangerous.  Where is it going?  Others (Calvin Coolidge?) have compared the government to a business. Perhaps what the government does is too important, too much its own thing, to compare in such a cavalier way with a plane or a grocery store. 

Unfortunately, I have to use analogies to back this up.  The notion of a government as an airplane, or a ship, to use an example that surely goes back at least to Plato, reminds me powerfully of arguments over the mind and the brain.  Is the mind like a clock, a piece of biological mechanism, evolved in a clearly material way, and no different from the dead matter surrounding it?  From certain directions this notion seems incontrovertible, and yet we always seem to lose something when we stop talking about souls and ideas.  Perhaps a countervailing and equally distorting tendency exists in descriptions of the world in terms of mere information.

I want to resist the tendency, which seems to me inherent in the notion of qualifications, to deciding political matters in a reductive, mechanistic way.  This reductiveness could manifest itself in checking boxes like “Department of State, worked in”, or in drawing lines that say “it’s over, time to support x candidate”, or in drawing conclusions like “taxes up, bad”.  What suggests itself to me is a Tocquevillian vision of American greatness resting upon the combined efforts of millions of mediocre, unqualified citizens participating equally in the business of running the country.  Yet how are millions of engaged citizens different from a bureaucracy?  This post is really not about who to vote for, but about how we decide, and about what analogies help us make our decisions.  I want to know what people think about this highly appealing and funny idea of the nation as a machine.

Democracy in America

My latest big reading project has been Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.  I picked it up because I felt obligated to get serious about American history and I wasn’t able to think of a better place to start.  A fabulous library can actually be an embarrassment if you haven’t read the fundamentals.

Tocqueville is not really writing American history at all.  He is as interested in understanding the continual revolutions in France (this was published in 1835 and 1840).  Furthermore, he sees France and America as instances of a growing equality which is irresistable and even providential.  Hence Democracy in America is a work of political and social theory, and many times I wished he would include just one example of the (very plausible) generalities he was expounding.

It should be impossible, but I have the nagging sense that Tocqueville’s thought has such a distinctive bent that it might be possible to sum up this long book.  He seems to see in everything American a kind of golden mediocrity.  American education was not sophisticated, but it was widespread and suited to American life.  American laws were not particularly inspired, the leaders not particularly powerful, but many, many Americans took energetic part in making and remaking them.  Perhaps most importantly, the United States, though not long independent, had a long tradition of local government to counter the dangerous centralizing tendency of democracies.

Of course it’s hard to refrain from comparing Tocqueville’s often awed perceptions of America with our own.  (I wish I knew what to make of the idea that 170 years later, these perceptions should still carry some weight.)  He thought that individualism was a danger to a country in which people are generally alike and no hierarchy exists to connect people step by step to society at large.  If Americans are no longer civically engaged to the degree that so astounded him, then we may have lost a great bulwark of freedom.  This is probably the strongest impression the book left on me.  We also can’t take the ever increasing equality Tocqueville saw for granted.  He saw industrial labor as the one (then exceptional) factor against rising equality; I have no idea what he would have made of the service economy.

Tocqueville seems to have gotten the Civil War almost exactly wrong.  He believed that the North was indifferent to slavery, that race war would inevitably follow any emancipation, and that the question was to what degree the North would aid white southerners in the event of a slave rebellion.  I suppose it isn’t strange that misconceived fears would play a big part in the build up to disaster.

What will I read next?  To me there are few obvious classics of American history per se; I suppose this says more about how the canon is formed than about Americans or history.  Thucydides and Herodotus are the classics, but they are also simply the earliest long narratives we possess in the West, and it’s not even clear to me that the events they describe are as unique or self contained as I sometimes imagine.  What classics of American history am I missing?  Does Common Sense count?  The Federalist is surely too narrowly focused?  Is it necessary to widen our scope a little?  What about novels like The Red Badge of Courage?

F*ing Trolleyology


(I quite like real trolleys, though.)

A while ago the New York Review ran an article on trolleyology.  I was a little disappointed.  Trolleyology drives me crazy, which tells me that I take myself too seriously, but there it is.

What is trolleyology?  It’s a game played by philosophers of ethics.  Suppose you saw five people tied to a track with a runaway trolley headed for them.  Then suppose there was a switch you could throw to direct the trolley onto a siding, but there was a sixth person tied up on that siding.  Would you do it?  What if there was a fat man standing by who would derail the trolley if you pushed him under its wheels?  The situations are ludicrous but writers are quick to point out applications to issues like abortion; It surprises me that I don’t recall any mention of civilian deaths in war.

Philosophers of a psychological bent apparently get a kick out of seeing the contradictory ways that people respond to these sorts of questions posed in different ways and orders.  Those are the kinds of picky arguments I resent being badgered with, and in my imaginary grapplings with them, I can never resist the temptation to answer “none of the above”.  If I ever see five people tied up on the train tracks, I won’t lose a moment finding the psycho who is responsible, and I’ll be looking for the moral philosophers first.

Seriously, I am forced to concede that we probably can learn something from these games.  I don’t necessarily concede that it’s worthwhile.  It’s easy to get mired in details when the truth may lie in an entirely different direction.   Speaking of works that go in a different direction I’ve been really meaning to get around to reading Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke.  It’s worth a try.

Photo is by Adam E. Moreira, via Wikimedia Commons, CC Attribution Share Alike.

Memory and Mathematics

I put a weak finish on 2013, reading wise.  I’ve been grinding away at grueling, plotless books for long enough that it’s hard to remember why I started.  I put aside a biography of Borges, in Spanish, that I started a while ago.  I never intended to read it at one go, but it still hangs over me.  Another is the book on Shakespeare’s language: mostly it makes me wish I were reading the plays, though I think it may prove worthwhile.

Finally, there was Philosophies of Mathematics.  It seemed like a good idea at the time.  My college math had a foundational, philosophical bent, and since then I’ve continued to dabble in it.  I don’t really sympathize with fretting over whether math is created or discovered, how we apply it to nature and so forth.  I’m more interested in the constructions and the proofs that crop up in these books.  (Incidentally, it’s observed that Borges, while no mathematician, had his own taste in mathematics.  So maybe it’s not as sorry as it sounds.)

I like to believe I’ve learned a few mathematical habits of thinking.  One idea that comes up often is that of one-to-one correspondence of collections of things, or sets.  When two sets can be matched up one-to-one (like having a right shoe to go with every left shoe in your closet and vice versa) you say you have the same number.  That the correspondence exists is more important, maybe, than exactly what number you have.  This idea leads in short order to fascinating demonstrations about the different sizes of infinity.  It also informs my personal notion (I don’t remember if I might have read it somewhere) of what a number is, which I muse on when others seem to get to bogged down in the ontological status of mathematics, or the being of numbers.  Numbers are just meaningless words that we recite when we wish to compare sets of objects.  We learn numbers as children by counting along with others, the same way we learn other songs.  If you remember the song the right way every time, you can establish a meaningful correspondence between sets.  So how do we learn the song?

A couple of years ago I read Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, by Joshua Foer.  It’s a popular history of mnemonics, with lots of amusing stories about various competitive memorizers, prodigies and a fair amount on their actual techniques.  At least one of them actually worked: By constructing a memory palace based on my old elementary school and an off the cuff list of strange images involving friends and acquaintances, I was able, with a couple hours of practice, to memorize the order of a deck of cards.  Once I got used to it I could do it in a few minutes.

Of course this amazing new skill didn’t turn into much of anything.  I’ve memorized a fair amount of poetry and I’m not bad at geography, either, but I do it by rote, and if there’s much more to it than that, I don’t know what it is.  I certainly helps if what I’m memorizing is beautiful or otherwise interesting.  Maybe when the limitations of my current method become apparent, I’ll turn again to the memory palace.  I’m interested in how other people commit things to memory and otherwise organize their thought.  Has philosophy, or the study of mathematics or some other field, changed the way you think, or do you just bang it out?

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 123

Memorization has its advantages and disadvantages.  On the one hand it gives me something to think about in odd moments and sometimes rewards me with a sudden insight; on the other, I think I miss out on the context that comes from a straight reading.  The other day I realized I don’t really get Sonnet 123.

No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change.
Thy pyramids, built up with newer might,
To me are nothing novel, nothing strange.
They are but dressings of a former sight.
Our dates are brief, and therefore we admire
What thou dost foist upon us that is old,
And rather make them born to our desire
Than think that we before have heard them told.
Thy registers and thee I both defy, 
Not wond’ring at the present nor the past,
For thy records and what we see doth lie,
Made more or less by thy continual haste.
This I do vow, and this shall ever be,
I will be true despite thy scythe and thee.

As I recall, I was attracted to this sonnet for two reasons.  One was the obvious echo of Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun.”  I think this reaches for or implies something else I was thinking about at the time, from Lao Tsu, “Without going outside, you may know the whole world.”*  The second reason was that I thought it might be the inspiration of one of will-o’-the-wisps of meaning glimpsed in the random pages of Borges’ Library of Babel, the phrase “O Time thy pyramids”.

What’s odd about this sonnet?  It’s one of those I’ve remarked on before, that has little conspicuously attractive imagery.  Then, between body and couplet (often an interesting transition), the poem switches from largely impersonal (the speaker may start out “I” but comes back to “we”) theorizing on history to strident declaration.  Time in this sonnet is not just the ragged hand of winter defacing the poet’s love (Sonnet 6), but a subtler problem.  In fact, I really think this poem is about something like what I have called “historical imagination”, the way knowledge of history informs our everyday thinking.  I’d like to think that, but I just don’t know what it’s really saying.  Some foolish people see a thing for the first time and think it’s the first time it’s ever happened.  They must not be students of history.  The speaker is too wise for that.  That’s the second quatrain.  But then he would also defy history’s lying records.  So where does that leave him?  With just that bold vow, I suppose.  Is it a convincing renunciation?

There are other sonnets on time, of course, though none quite like this one.  I thought of “When in the chronicle of wasted time,” (106) with which I am familiar enough, but realized on looking back over the sonnets that I had totally forgotten about the one right after 123 that starts

If my dear love were but the child of state,
It might for Fortune’s bastard be unfathered…
It’s tremendous.  I still have a lot to think about.

* Tao Te Ching 47, trs. Feng & English

The Most Interesting Word in the World

Not just according to my old tutor, Eva Brann, but according to the thing itself, the most interesting word in Western philosophy is logos.  I’ve just read Brann’s book The Logos of Heraclitus: The First Philosopher of the West on its Most Interesting Term.  The Ancient Greek “pre Socratic” philosopher Heraclitus may be best known for saying that you can’t set foot in the same river twice.  Among other things, Brann makes the case that to remember him for this doctrine that “everything flows” is to misunderstand him.

I feel I should make the probably unhelpful confession that I am not quite on board with metaphysics.  That is, I feel a restlessness come over me when I am faced with a statement like “all is one”, or an argument in favor of accepting paradox.  Great, you might say, why should I hear your thoughts on this book when you admit you’re prejudiced against it?  Well, this isn’t a deliberate position of mine, but a vague state of mind that troubled me as I read.  I think it’s to Brann’s credit that no sooner had I begun to fret over this than I was drawn in by some striking arguments.

What if, for example, the usual translation of hen panta, all is one, misses the mark somewhat?  Brann’s contention, well within the realm of grammatical possibility, is that Heraclitus intended something more like “one: everything”, the colon being the same notation used to denote mathematical ratios, or in Greek, logoi.  I find it much more plausible that Heraclitus is drawing our attention to the relationship, whatever it may be, between one and many, than that he is simply identifying them.  Brann draws our attention to two examples of relations, ratios, or logoi: that which obtains between numbers, and that which makes a poetic metaphor.  They seem to be of two different sorts, but where is the boundary?  Is it always easy to say where that boundary lies in science, or rhetoric, or law?  Is one sort more fundamental to our thinking?

There’s a lot to the book I haven’t said much about.  Does Heraclitus somehow think the world is made of fire?  Why is War king of all?  I could easily stand to read it again, and follow up with the rest of the pre Socratics, Plato, Euclid, maybe even Aristotle.  It’s worth thinking about.

One last thought: Is logos really an English word?  Should it be?  And how?