Tuesday, January 29, 2013

On the Nature of Things - Lucretius

Lucretius tells us that he has set about on an inquiry, not just into "celestial affairs", but also into the soul and the nature of the human mind, and of what these consist. By and large, we must admit, he has been successful. Though much of the scientific understandings have become outmoded (it has, of course, been two thousand years) much of the poet/philosopher's insights prefigure much of modern-day understanding. As the plaudits for this work span millennia, it would serve scant purpose to add another drop to the bucket. Rather than pursue much of a review here, I wanted to focus on a certain line of questioning this work elicited.

Lucretius speaks of, what we would translate, as atoms. That such an insight was available to this man is, in and of itself, a colossal triumph (though he was not the first). Atoms, he writes, make up all things and anything that can act or be acted upon must be composed of atoms; there is nothing else in all of infinite existence. It is the random movement of atoms - the departure from the set path, also known as the clinamen - that sets the universe into the motion we recognize. Building off this position, Lucretius develops a philosophy predicated on the tangibility of existence. Of particular interest is how the transition from inanimate matter and the departure of the clinamen is transformed into that which is intelligible in the world around us. This passage, and the attendant emergent complexity of the world, could perhaps be better understood if Lucretius' ontology was operationalized in practical use.

Yet, we cannot help but wonder to what extent such insights meaningfully speak to the modern day. Can philosophy and knowledge transcend such vast expanses of time? Can insights gleaned by classical philosophers and scientists really speak meaningfully about the world we inhabit? This is not meant as some sort-of rhetorical slight-of-hand. While it may be obvious that when, say Lucretius, or Aristotle or Kant, writes about nature, that they will not have the same exact thing in mind, to what extent can we speak generically as though they were even discussing the same concept? If knowledge is - and some might argue that it must be - a contextualized phenomena, what basis is there to say that people across time and space are speaking of the same entities or concepts at all? If the world and the people within it are all of one piece, as Lucretius argues, certainly the situatedness of any knower is central to knowledge creation and communication. Can we meaningfully say that ideas are eternal? What is the basis for such a claim?

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Intelligibility of Nature - Peter Dear

"There will always be jobs for test pilots."

How scientific understanding is mobilized (or, made instrumental) in the world is never straight-forward. Not only that, but, to hear Peter Dear tell it, techne - the event of creating meaningful change in the world - is a wholly separate type of scientific experience than is scientia - the creation of natural philosophy. Throughout the history of western science these two contrasting, and sometimes conflicting, aspects of scientific pursuit of traded places of preeminence. For Newton, scientia - speaking meaningfully about the world - became more a question of process than of intelligible knowledge resulting. This tension is far from innocent.

Dear's most powerful insight is the extent to which natural philosophy and instrumentality have, by needs, developed an intimate relationship of accommodation across scientific history. While intelligibility is itself an irreducible category - either a concept makes sense or it doesn't - the ability to move the world - concerns of instrumentality - fulfill a certain burden of proof. Whether instrumentality is the result of truthful application of prior understanding, or whether application is the only adequate measure of true knowledge, matters greatly when we are concerned with knowing the world around us.

The history of science primarily endeavors to reveal the pursuit of knowledge creation in the sciences as a far from given, monolithic history of obvious discovery. Why and how past peoples thought differently about the world they inhabited, and how this context influenced (and indeed, influences) the changing prospects of human understanding, is inseparable from the types of science engaged in and how the human and nonhuman world continues to be transformed. Peter Dear gives a punchy overview of the debates in western science (largely since the Enlightenment and scientific revolution). While the he-said, he-said aspect of the debates between different thinkers can come across as a bit cumbersome to the uninitiated, it is crucial to Dear's thesis to investigate how different thinkers were situated within a scientific community, and the extent to which this community formed understandings of natural philosophy. He admirably walks a difficult tight-rope: situating research and discovery in time and space while not falling into the trap of social determination. This is an admirable introduction for those interested in thinking about how social and natural philosophical aspects of scientific understanding grow together and influence one another.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Swerve - Stephen Greenblatt

In the throes of the dark ages, the intellectual world must have felt like an extremely narrow place. The power and priority of the Catholic Church was largely unquestioned and, seemingly, there was little in the ways of diverse thinking about the world and people's place within it. The staggering conceptual achievements of the ancient world - primarily Greece and Rome - were all but forgotten. Into such a world stepped the Italian humanists, led by Poggio Braciolinni, who were to, Greenblatt contends, so fundamentally alter the manner in which people conceived of the world, that the seeds of modernity could be attributed to these men. But it must be clear, Braciolinni and his contemporaries wrote little of lasting significance. Rather, it was their belief in the superiority of classical texts, and through their tireless efforts to rediscover such works for the world's benefit, that these men helped to lift Europe out of the dark ages and foster much of the intellectual growth since.

Greenblatt's narrative seamlessly integrates the life and times of Poggio with a rich cultural history of the development of western thought into what would become the Renaissance. The reader can feel Poggio's longing to discover a forgotten world and bridles at the narrow-mindedness of his situation. Greenblatt has accomplished much in coherently interweaving a plethora of historical information in a fairly compact work; the plaudits for his work seem endless.

What is left unclear is how the ideas - Greenblatt focuses largely on Lucretius' De Rarum Natura (On the Nature of Things) - Poggio revealed to the West led to more modern thinking. While the Renaissance certainly relied heavily on access to ancient texts and ways of thinking, it was, of course, transcended by the modern era. Such a shortcoming speaks, not necessarily to the strengths and weaknesses of Greenblatt's text, but the claims made about what the text accomplishes. This is a highly readable work concerned with how the Middle Ages would give way to the Renaissance, but falls short as true critique of intellectual history. To read The Swerve one might think that Poggio, his contemporaries and their disciples, adopted ancient philosophy and understandings uncritically, and whole-cloth. If such is the case then the clinamen, or the swerve, comes after the fact, in how such ideas became adapted to, and subsequently transformed a modern world. If the swerve - that which is unexpected and changes the composition of things - is the result of the rediscovery of such texts, then it is not really a random event within a known system; but rather a new variable, previously unaccounted for. In comparing the evolution of history to the falling of atoms, Greenblatt overreaches in his analogy. While it may be said that the western world took an unaccounted for turn, as the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, the conceptual lineage at work remains unclear; if thinkers minds had not been prepared for such conceptual revolutions the rediscovered works may have fallen upon deaf ears. How was it that the intellectual world required new (old) ways of thinking, and how did such reinventions interact with the status quo?

Greenblatt has achieved much in the way of thought-provoking history. He has written adroitly on what risks being a very dry, distant topic. Surely any reader will find much to learn and ponder over. But the work requires a deeper intellectual engagement with how this cultural-conceptual history was situated with, interacted with, and helped to transform the world.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Radical Hope - Jonathan Lear

"After that, nothing happened." - Plenty Coups

Such is the jumping-off point for Jonathan Lear's look at the ending of traditional Crow society. Lear is interested in what it would mean for history, specifically the history of a culture, to come to an end. Using interviews with Plenty Coups, the last Crow chief, Lear examines how a culture deals with its own destruction, and, potentially, its disappearance. Implicit in his examination is the position that history and the world only make sense as they are seen through any particular lens. Once the concepts of a people cease to relevantly address the world they live in, what rationale is there for saying that they inhabit a cohesive history? It is not simply to say that, "after that, everything was different." Saying that "nothing happened," Lear argues, is tantamount to pronouncing the death of a culture; the death of meaning.

If it can be meaningfully said, for any people, that things could cease to happen, then such a possibility exists for all people and cultures. Beyond here lies nothing means not simply that a culture is inadequate to dealing with a changing world, more crucially, it means lacking the concepts to extract meaning from experience. It is not that Crow culture was simply overrun by the spread of the West and the coming of the United States, rather their concepts of the world and their place within it were unable to address the changes around them at all. In such a case, how can one meaningfully speak of having a cultural, or personal, ethic?

"Are there courageous ways of facing a future for which the traditional conception of courage has become inapplicable?" p. 112

It is in response to this problem that Plenty Coups offered his people a radical answer to their cultural devastation. Inasmuch as people are limited, yearning entities, attempting to make sense of their place in creation, there are excellent ways of inhabiting reality. Lear sees the message of Plenty Coups as one which allows the past to be put behind, so that a new concept of the good might emerge. By acknowledging the death of one way of life a people can meaningfully move forward. Once this death is met with equanimity, then the values of a people can be brought to bear on a new situation. In this way Plenty Coups has offered his people the chance to continue forward in a wholly new way. Lear ably demonstrates that such an ideal is not a contradiction. Indeed, it may be the only way to exist meaningfully in a transformed world.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Presidents Club - Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

The unique strains and pressures of the presidency can never fully be understood by any man or woman who has not had to sit in the chief executive's chair. Perhaps the loneliest job in the world does, by needs, breed a certain fraternity across presidents. As Harry Truman famously said, "the buck stops here"'; throughout American history only 43 men could fully appreciate the extent to which this is true.

Time magazine editors Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy take us inside the relationships between every president since Truman and his predecessors. It was at Ike's inauguration that Truman and former pariah Herbert Hoover met to (re)start the Presidents Club - an informal society for former Presidents. At its core the club continues to operate with two goals in mind; to serve the sitting President - and by extension to continue to serve the country - and to protect the office of the presidency (itself a concept that continues to evolve). How these concerns have been balanced over time has, of course, been dependent upon each man's conception of the office and his continued relationship to it as well as his efforts to shape history's verdict over his own administration. Surprisingly or not, each man seems to have struggled with leaving the Oval Office behind.

The book is, at turns, political gossip and electoral history. How different presidents have thought about and interacted with one-another, is a sort-of holy grail of insider knowledge in the beltway. To the extent that such relationships illuminate our thinking about each man, and about the office, the book works. Seeing the epitome of political animals known as LBJ and Nixon, conspire to work through a potential Vietnam peace process uncovers that strengths and flaws of each man at perhaps the most pivotal moments of their careers (we cannot help but feel robbed of a Johnson-Nixon race). Likewise, the evolution of the relationship between Presidents Clinton and Bush (41) contrasts with each man's time in office and serves as a cause for reflection concerning whether or not they were allowed to give free reign to their better angels while in office. Where the work falls short is when different narratives feel cobbled together and given short shrift. Sometimes the relationships shown seem to be only a brushstroke or two of the larger picture. To the extent that the work is meant to focus on the relationship between a given president and his predecessors, as personalities, this book succeeds. What is needed is a deeper examination of how each man thought of the roles and responsibilities of the office, and to what extent this shaped both their presidencies and post-presidential life. While issues of personality may heavily influence how each related to one another, too easily does the work rely on the force of each man's personality to move the work forward.

Friday, January 4, 2013

All the King's Men - Robert Penn Warren

Governor Willie Stark is a man of grand vision and perhaps even grander ambition, and Jack Burden is his right hand-man. Though a novel in name Robert Penn Warren's work can never be fully untangled from the life and times of Louisiana governor then senator Huey Long. And while the work surely has much to add to our understanding of history, it is the moral tale at its heart which ensures that this work will continue to endure. For the political world is only a larger backdrop against which Warren has set his investigation into the human condition.

Willie Stark rises from a rural, young idealistic lawyer and a virtual nobody into a powerful man and through and thorough cynic concerning the nature of man's time on Earth. Stark remarks that there is nothing good about the world and that all men have evil and disreputable pasts, it is simply the job of the politician to make something good out of all the bad in the world. This political horse-trader and power maven has come a long way indeed from the country bumpkin studying law in his father's house. In contrast Jack Burden has grown up a sort-of intellectual drifter, unsure of how to order his life or how to make sense of a world seemingly lawless and meaningless around him. Frequently disillusioned, it is only when his life seems to lose all foundation that Burden is able to reconcile the interconnectedness of things around him. As such Burden comes to understand that he enables both his bosses better and worse qualities and actions. What is good and bad in Willie Stark can be said to be true of Jack Burden as well. They are bound together (along with a cast of other men and women); enabling each other, monitoring each other and eventually providing for their downfall. Whether Warren provides a cynical and tragic account of political power in America is in the eye of the beholder. That he has achieved a probing look into how the lives of men are intertwined, how the decisions of the few can rule the fate of many, and how our interconnectedness has very real implications for our own governance and the governance of society at large is beyond a doubt.

The Meeting of East and West - FSC Northrop

Traversing cultures and their philosophies across the Occident and the Orient, philosopher FSC Northrop has created a complex and at times seemingly-comprehensive account, aimed, basically, at trying to understand why the cultures of our world function as they do. At its core The Meeting of East and West is focused-upon synthesizing the different - and Northrop argues, complimentary - understandings and approaches to knowledge taken by different peoples. Northrop hopes that by applying critical standards to different conceptions of the good we might create a world that is at once more intelligible across cultural divisions and unified in its assessments of how we ought to move forward.

In reviewing how different cultures have come to understand human interaction within the the world, Northrop argues that his work illuminates the core of why societies function as they do. In so doing he puts himself in a position to critique the outcomes of such conceptual foundations. Why do Germans and Americans have different ideas about the relationship between the individual and society? How is the Catholic conception of the hierarchy of creation informed by Aristotle? Why do westerners seem to frequently misunderstand eastern societies? These are some of the more basic questions thrusting his work forward.

Crucial to understanding Northrop's position is an acceptance of his claim that questions of right and wrong, that concepts of the good, are not wholly subjective moralities nestled in people's minds, with neither resonance nor potential for comparison within the lived world. If he had accomplished nothing else than a review of the underlying premises of his cultures of focus, Northrop would have accomplished much indeed. However, he has hazarded an attempt at considerably more. Northrop sets-out to overturn the subjective-objective divide and replace it with a unified reality - what he terms the 'undifferentiated aesthetic continuum.' For Northrop both the West and the East have something to teach us about how the particular and the universal interact, and what role human thought plays in this system. Whether he has created some form of coherent, new world philosophy may never really be known. What is certain is that his work calls to task many of our unexamined tropes and foundations and provides one potential, meaningful way forward.