Reality is down the hall

Posted in 3QD essays by Huenemann on October 27, 2014

“It is therefore worth noting,” Schopenhauer writes, “and indeed wonderful to see, how man, besides his life in the concrete, always lives a second life in the abstract.” I suppose you might say that some of us (especially college professors) tend to live more in the abstract than not. But in fact we all have dual citizenship in the concrete and abstract worlds. One world is at our fingertips, at the tips of our tongues, and folded into our fields of vision. The concrete world is just the world; and the more we try to describe it, the more we fail, as the here and now is immeasurably more vivid than the words “here” and “now” could ever suggest – even in italics.

Read more here.

A philosopher goes to an anime con

Posted in Uncategorized by Huenemann on October 17, 2014

P1070817_1My kids and their friends know the world of Japanese animation in the way my generation can sing the Looney Tunes libretto to “What’s Opera, Doc?” But their involvement in this world goes much further. They regularly convene with their fellow fans, in crazy costumes, and celebrate their common love for a world of warriors with huge swords and neon hairstyles, demons spawned from friendlier zones of hell, bikini-clad princesses with eight-foot long sniper rifles, and a wide assortment of crazed scientists and military types.

Entering this fanzone is entering another world, a world far more accepting and supportive than any other produced thus far by our species. As we stood in a long line for tickets, enthusiasts clicked pictures of one another, always with expressions of admiration and love. It is a lot like a gay pride event – indeed, a lot like one – in which everyone supports one another’s celebration of individuality. A pick-up truck drives by, and a girl in the back shouts out “You all are wonderful!” and everyone cheerily waves back to her.

Once we get inside, we have our fake weapons checked for nonlethality and buy our tickets. I let the kids go off to find their own adventures. I wander the halls for a few minutes, feeling a bit like a weirdo since I am dressed for the mundane world. I am also self-conscious because there are a lot of half-naked young women running about, and I still don’t know where to put my eyes in order to strike the right balance that should be there somewhere between “rude indifference” and “sexual objectification”.

After a bit, I wander off the premises. The convention hall is surrounded by land being developed into commercial structures, which exist as small islands in a sea of parking lots. I navigate myself over weedy mounds of excavated dirt before reaching the shores of the wine-dark asphalt. I spy in the distance strange characters making their way to the con, carrying flags and enormous scythes and grease-stained bags of food from Carl’s Jr. Jets soar loudly overhead because we’re only a few miles from an Air Force base. Would this world be explicable to anyone not in it? As I trudge along, I think about writing a new version of the Canterbury Tales in which a set of cosplayers set out from a convention across a wasteland to fetch lunch at Quizno’s. Nah – too real, too bleak, no point.

I finally shore up at Target and buy some juice and a snack, standing in the checkout line beside a young man in white labcoat and wild white hair, with a huge bolt penetrating his head. I then set out again for the return voyage, one pilgrim among many trekking over the parking lots and mounds of dirt. I return to the car to take shelter in it and type up these reflections. Next to me is a small troop of half-naked ninjas. I smile at them, give a thumbs-up, and say, “You all look great!” They react with uncertain wariness and then ignore me, which is understandable. I want to tell them, “I’m a geek, too! I go crazy over 18th-century automata!” but I suspect they won’t see the similarity.

I rendezvous with the kids for lunch and they are in a sort of happy, over-stimulated daze. Their eyes scan the crowds, identifying characters and assessing the quality of the costumes. I suddenly realize how they must feel when mom and dad take them to foreign cities. I’m asking very basic questions about genres and cultures which they can’t fully answer because, like national and ethnic identities, they don’t make a lot of sense, and you really don’t need to know the details in order to find your way around. Eventually I stop asking.

Back to the con for them, and back to the car for me. Sitting in my car, typing away, makes me feel like a cosplay hermit, like some Obi-Wan in the deserts of Tatooine, waiting for Luke to mature – with the beard, no less, but minus any cool Jedi robe. (This at least is a genre I know well.) Soon enough it is time for me to cross the trackless wastes and scare off the sandpeople.

The three kids – two of them mine, plus a friend of theirs – are supposed to meet me at the Designated Place. #1 and #2 are there; #3 is not in sight. #2 goes off to attend something; #3 shows up; #2 goes off to find #1; #1 returns, but now #3 wanders off to another adventure; it’s just #1 and me; now #2 returns, and we are back to wondering where #3 is. But it takes only a half hour or so for all four of us to gather in the same spot, and they are weary with the intense visual processing of the day. We return slowly but happily to our trusty landspeeder, and away we go.

Interesting minds

Posted in Uncategorized by Huenemann on October 1, 2014

(Warning: here comes a rant)

shutterstock_116693740I recently had the joy of meeting with colleagues from around the state, but unfortunately most of our meeting was focused on one of the least interesting topics with which academics can interact: outcome assessments, or essential learning outcomes, or “learning how to measure what we value”. Everything that can be said under this heading can easily be articulated within your own brain with a few minutes’ thought. Academic programs need to articulate what knowledge and skills they are imparting to their students; along with this, they need objective measurements of how successful they are at doing this; and the loop must be closed – meaning, programs need to use the results of these measurements to modify or reform what they are doing.

What, pray tell, are the skills and knowledge to be taught? Well, the principles, terms, and theories that are fundamental to the discipline, of course; and the skills are critical reading, thinking, writing, and the ability to work constructively with others. Even (!!!) in humanistic programs like philosophy or literature or languages, programs can boast that they are giving students the critical skills they will need to combat the difficult problems they are sure to face in their multiply-careered lives. (Another way of putting this point: even though what humanists teach is crap, the skills students gain by learning that crap are useful.) And on and on and on. All too predictable.

But in this eager race to the lowest (but easily measured) intellectual denominator, the “most essential” learning outcome of all is seldom noticed. What do students expect from college? What do professors like to see as they watch students proceed through the ranks? What do employers want to see emerging at the other end? Interesting minds. While it is said that students want college to give them jobs, I very much doubt that it is true. Students want to have their worlds rocked by ideas and insights, and they want to become intelligent and interesting. Professors love nothing more than to see the lost and naive freshman become a thinker alive to ideas and objections and concepts. Employers want college grads who are interesting (meaning: smart and creative) – people who can diagnose problems in fresh ways and brainstorm solutions into being. That is exactly the sort of thing you can’t reliably obtain from someone who hasn’t spent months or years grappling with treatises, fictions, heterodoxies, and paradoxes.

Indeed, most of the discussions regarding “assessment” are fine examples of exactly what we do not want to see college producing: vague and uniform truisms, hooked up with measures so meaningless as to guarantee that nothing will ever change. It is the deadened life of the bureaucratic mind. But imagine, as an alternative, academics charting the careers of students who have turned out to be really interesting, and trying to figure out what really happened, and to what extent their own courses or programs can take any credit for it. Undoubtedly, there never will be any sure-fire formula. But we might be able to collect a range of good practices, interesting ideas, experiments to try, as well as some solid critiques of what can stultify a college career.

There would be in-house benefits as well. It may turn out that each discipline needs something outside itself in order to improve the chances of its students gaining interesting minds. An accounting major might be lit afire by an art history course, as a philosophy major might develop new approaches by spending a semester in computer science. Professors, to the extent they wanted to make their students interesting, would have to get out in the wide world of the college campus and see what was on offer, just so that they could better advise their students. Who knows? In the end, they might end up having interesting minds as well.

Quaere, how much do we really see?

Posted in 3QD essays by Huenemann on September 29, 2014

How much of the world do we actually experience? Of course, I’m not bemoaning the shortness of human life, or the narrow range of the visual spectrum, or the insensitivities of our skins and tongues. There’s no doubt we’re missing out on a lot. But within the world of our experience – how much of it do we in fact experience?

This is a big question always, but it was particularly big over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries. Some thinkers abided by the scholastic dictum – “there’s nothing in the mind that isn’t first presented by the senses” – which means that all of the content in our model of the world is gained through sensory experience. There is something very neat and tidy about this – nothing comes from nothing, and everything is accounted for.

(Read more here.)

Learning from strangers on planes

Posted in Uncategorized by Huenemann on September 4, 2014

COLLINGWOOD_ROBIN_GEORGE_mareR. G. Collingwood’s principles of history:

  1. “All history is history of thought.”
  2. “Historical knowledge is the re-enactment in the historian’s mind of the thought whose history he is studying.”
  3. “Historical knowledge is the re-enactment of a past thought incapsulated in a context of present thoughts which, by contradicting it, confine it to a plane different from theirs.”

 I must admit to knowing very little about Collingwood’s philosophy of history. A bright and motivated student and I are planning to read through his Idea of History after plunging through some Hegel this semester. So I hope to know more in a few months. Meanwhile, the principles above come from RGC’s Autobiography, which is very short, witty, and interesting. He traces his own course through schools, academic politics, intellectual interests, and world events.

 I have been thinking about RGC’s principles with reference to the history of philosophy, of course. (It probably fits better there anyway; many friends of mine are professional historians and I think they would place severe qualifications upon the claim that history is first and foremost about ideas.) There has been a lot of discussion among historians of philosophy about the nature of what they do, and there has emerged something of a divide between the “philosophy” historians of philosophy and the “history” historians of philosophy. (Please, bear with me.) Those in the “philosophy” camp read historical philosophical texts as attempts to get at the philosophical truth, just as contemporary articles in metaphysics or ethics or epistemology are attempts to get at the truth. Those in the “history” camp set this concern aside, and are more interested in getting at what the historical author had in mind, given the author’s historical circumstance – more like what RCG says history is all about.

 There is something to be said for each camp. Jonathan Bennett has been the most forceful proponent of the “philosophy” camp. He reported that he found wrestling with texts of Leibniz, Descartes, Locke, and Spinoza is the best way for him to think through the underlying philosophical issues. He never spared the Great Dead from his extremely analytical mind, calling spades spades and flagging every lapse. He would lend whatever aid he could to help get a philosopher’s system working, and he found several of the old systems to be not only salvageable but powerfully right in some of their claims. He couldn’t see why any philosopher (qua philosopher!) would read old philosophical texts in any other way.

 (I am writing about Bennett in the past tense, but only because he has retired from active academic publication. He is very much alive, though recently suffered the loss of his wife Gillian, whose death was itself a testament to her nobility, her integrity, and her concern for enlightened social policy. The story can be read here.)

 The “history” camp has greater interest in placing philosophical texts in their historical context, though very often the “historical context” comes to mean other philosophy texts from the same period. Seldom is any attention paid to the wars being waged or the political disturbances and factions of the day, let alone the actual living and working circumstances of the authors. That’s just historical “noise.” The thinkers are treated as if they live in bubbles of cogitation, insulated from the contingencies of existence.

 RGC would have us employ historical knowledge and imagination to draw closer to the thinkers as they think their thoughts. This would require us to not just closely read the works of Hobbes and Spinoza – even in Latin! – and pay close analytical attention to every jot and tittle in the texts. We would have to start thinking about the issues of their days, the audiences they were writing to, and perhaps even their own political ambitions for status and readership. They weren’t interested solely in philosophical truth – indeed, no one is. They were interested in controversies and careers, and many of them lived in times where misplaced publications would have very dire consequences. “Re-enacting” the philosopher’s thoughts in our own mind requires knowing quite a bit more about the philosopher’s lived reality.

 But why would a philosopher (qua philosopher!) be interested in this? I think the answer can emerge by thinking through RGC’s third principle. As we strive to understand historical thought, we can’t do so without underscoring the relevant differences between our circumstance and theirs. We “incapsulate” the thoughts within our own times, which just means: we know we are doing history, and not contemporary philosophy. We pay attention to the differences. But this also means paying attention to the sameness. We don’t live in those historical times, but some of the concerns those thinkers had should be familiar to us. We know death, sickness, and the comfort of friendship. We are familiar with the fear of mobs and the ideals of a well-functioning state. Many things change, but these do not. When we see how thoughtful human beings responded to their times, we see human beings responding to time; and that is relevant to us. RGC is right that, by doing history, we in a sense “contradict” the historical thoughts with present thoughts, and so put them on a different plane. But we find familiar human beings on every such plane. And from them, we learn.

A personal ethics of clicking

Posted in 3QD essays by Huenemann on September 1, 2014

Now that every click we make is watched, archived, and meta-data-fied, it is time to start thinking seriously about a personal ethics of internet consumption. This goes beyond mere paranoia and worry over what others might think of what you’re taking interest in. Each click is in fact a tiny vote, proclaiming to content providers that you support this sort of thing, and hope to see more of it in the future. And – as always! – we should vote responsibly.


Read more here.


Where academic philosophy went wrong

Posted in Uncategorized by Huenemann on August 19, 2014

A potted history:

I believe Peter Sloterdijk is right that the Enlightenment has been followed by philosophical cynicism, or an impressive array of natural knowledge unaccompanied by any faith in providence. The U.S., which became the dominant intellectual and cultural force in the course of the 20th century, was well-suited to put this cynicism to work: for America was built upon a pragmatic, “can do” attitude, and seemed ready to let expediency drive ideology . (There are probably interesting connections here to Protestantism and Holland of the 17th century.) And so there arose on American shores the fulfillment of the German idea of a research university, with its faculty as a specialized workforce and its students as Model-Ts rumbling down an assembly line on which three credits of this and three credits of that are bolted on to each chassis.

 Each academic discipline became a guild or union, where membership is tightly controlled and guild members insist on their indispensability to the general curriculum. New disciplines created their own means of controlling membership and making cases for their newfound indispensability.

 As unions generally lost power and new models of management were developed in the last third of the 20th century, the university also experienced a shift in authority from the faculty to the administration. In the names of efficiency and accountability, administrators deployed numerous measures for evaluating faculty “productivity”; and the nature of these measures encouraged faculty to entrench themselves more firmly in their respective guilds.

 In the case of philosophy, this meant (1) more attention devoted to narrow problem-solving activity rather then efforts to deepen philosophical wonder; (2) increasingly narrow specialization and less general knowledge of the discipline itself and its history; (3) less engagement with anyone outside the professional guild; and (4) development of various cants and shibboleths to patrol membership in the guild.

 What to do? (Provided, that is, that one is inclined to see these results as problems!)

 Most academic philosophy departments see themselves primarily as housing a specialized academic discipline, and contributing only incidentally here or there to a university’s general education curriculum. The priority needs to be reversed. Frankly, there is little or no need for specialized academic philosophy; if it disappeared overnight, the only ones who would notice would be the practitioners themselves. But on the other hand, despite the occasional iconoclastic polemic saying otherwise, there is a widespread recognition that philosophy provides a valuable contribution to the mind of an educated person, even if the person is not working toward a degree in the field. Philosophy professors need to see their primary job as enriching the mental lives, values, and discourses of non-philosophers. For almost everyone, we should be a side dish rather than the main course. That is where our societal value lies.

 Now it can be argued that in order to do this well, philosophers also need opportunities to continue to learn and grow: they too need the chance to “geek out” with fellow philosophers through publications and conferences. And, where there is both talent and motivation, some philosophers will manage to advance our very old and rich discipline. But genuine advances in philosophy will not happen with the frequency of advances in younger and more technological disciplines, like computer science and chemistry. Genuine advances in philosophy are as few and far between as are the geniuses of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. For most of us most of the time, our primary job is to enlighten masses.

 If philosophy reconceived itself along these lines, graduate training in philosophy would look very different. Right now, the usual aim is to equip each student for intensely critical interaction with a vanishingly narrow band of specialists. (Typically, these PhDs are then hired to teach very broad undergraduate classes – an assignment for which, of course, they are wholly unprepared.) But if my proposal were adopted, these candidates would be trained to engage meaningfully, fruitfully, and philosophically with a wide range of people lacking expertise in philosophy. They would be required to write not dissertations, but books that could meaningfully inform the lives of their fellow citizens. This would be the norm rather than the now-celebrated exception. Philosophy would move out of the tower and back into the agora.

 I can hear the complaint: “But there are many really smart people who are now attracted to philosophy’s narrow and difficult questions, and wouldn’t go into the discipline at all if they instead had to ‘dumb down’ their efforts for bigger audiences.” I grant the objection, and have three responses:

  • First, it seems to me that these smart people might be able to find as much enjoyment working through equally difficult abstract problems in other fields – fields in which solving the problems would have more impact on more people. Smart problem-solvers are in demand all over the place.
  • Second, there would still be room in the discipline for some really smart, narrow specialists, even if most of the room were given over to the broader task I’m recommending. Right now, of course, all of the room is reserved for narrow specialists – and that just doesn’t seem sensible, especially given the nature of the great majority of teaching jobs that exist.
  • And third, I bet that for every person who is drawn into philosophy because of an inordinate enthusiasm for tight and narrow problems, there are ten really smart people who turn away from the discipline because there is no current opportunity for tackling broad and deep questions, and bringing them to the attention of wider audiences.

 It would take some courage for philosophy as a discipline to make this move and “demean itself” by talking to broader audiences. It might seem like some sort of admission of defeat. But in reality, I think this move would be greeted very enthusiastically by a lot of educated people who have become increasingly disappointed in academic philosophers’ refusal to connect with people other than themselves. Moreover, it might encourage other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences to follow our lead, and recall their original purpose: to enlighten, deepen, enrich, and complicate the minds of human beings from all walks of life.

The obstaclean theory of matter

Posted in 3QD essays by Huenemann on July 14, 2014

Denying the existence of the material world never goes down well. No matter how clever and compelling the arguments, most of us want to insist that matter exists – and as our insistence becomes more vehement, we start pounding tables, as if that will impress our interlocutors.

Read more…

Seen while biking….

Posted in Uncategorized by Huenemann on July 9, 2014

I went for a long bike ride yesterday. At the start I was just rolling along, letting my mind wander, and taking in the sights:

• kids selling lemonade,

• a well-kept garden,

• a Rat Patrol-style jeep with a gatling gun perched on top and three guys wrapping it in plastic,

• an interesting older red pick up for sale, …

Wait….. whaaaaa? So I had to turn the bike around to investigate.

Sure, enough, the jeep was painted drab, army green, with faux motor pool numbers stenciled on the side. It was on a transport trailer, and looked to be in near-new condition, so it was probably being sent off to a customer somewhere. On the passenger side, just outside the vehicle, was a rifle holster, with a nasty black armament in the holster. And hard at work were three guys wrapping the jeep in plastic (I suppose to protect it against kicked up stones on the road).

I learned recently that the idea of bolting a machine gun to the top of a moving vehicle was the idea of George S. Patton, he of pearl-handled revolver fame. He first used the weapon in the Pancho Villa Expedition, strapping a gun atop a 1915 Dodge, racing up behind the enemy, and blasting away.

“So…,” I said to the guys, “what’s going on up top there?” I gestured toward the gatling gun. It had six long round barrels, two pistol-grip handles, and a big red button.

They kept wrapping. Their leader eventually explained, “It’s for crowd control.”

“It’ll do that,” I agreed. “But is it real? I mean, it isn’t, right? It has a big red button on it, and nothing real has a big red button on it.” I was rapidly reaching the end of my knowledge of weaponry.

“It’s real. I added the big red button myself; it didn’t come with that. It delivers (x hundred? y thousand?) rounds per minute, something, something, something.” He added, “It shoots CO2 pellets.” So it was in fact a very badass BB gun. It wouldn’t kill, but it would definitely disperse a crowd. The other two guys kept wrapping and did not acknowledge my presence.

Now I’ve lived in the rural west long enough to know not to ask questions to which you don’t want to know the answers. So I said, “Well, it sure looks cool. You guys have a good day,” and pedaled off. The encounter gave me plenty of material for thinking over my ride. My guess is that this guy, out of his home, equips vehicles with weaponry, under contract with – well, with whom? Probably not with municipal police units, since the jeep was done up to look federal, and those agencies like to keep it clear who is doing the shooting. Possibly with paramilitary groups, of which there seem to be increasing numbers. Or possibly a low-GDP foreign government? Mexico? Puzzling, the things one sees from time to time. I’ve got to admit, though, that thing was cool.

Leibniz’s Stepped Reckoner, and a clock to last for the next 10,000 years

Posted in 3QD essays by Huenemann on July 7, 2014

In 1671, in some letters exchanged with the French mathematician Pierre de Carcavy, Leibniz mentioned his plans to create a calculating machine. Apparently, he had been inspired by a pedometer, probably thinking that if machines could count, they could then calculate. Within a couple of years, he hired a craftsman build a wooden prototype of his machine, and he packed it along in a trip to London in 1673.

Read more…

Kate Tempest is someone to watch for

Posted in Uncategorized by Huenemann on July 3, 2014

Thoughts on a quote from Burton Dreben

Posted in Uncategorized by Huenemann on June 25, 2014

Burton Dreben (1927-1999) was a Harvard professor whose influence upon academic philosophers has been great, despite a paucity of publications. Indeed, his influence has been so strong that some people refer to his students as being “Drebenized”, or molded in the form of the master. His main area of interest was logic, and the thought of Wittgenstein, Quine, Frege, and Carnap.

I heard Dreben lecture once – it was on Frege’s notes on Witggenstein’s Tractatus – and found him to be funny, smart, and captivating. He lectured simply, with only the texts before him, and he shared his unscripted thoughts with force and clarity. He easily defended himself against acute criticisms raised by my professors, whom I held in a kind of terrified reverence. An anecdote shared by another philosopher pretty much captures my recollection of Dreben’s style of repartee:

 [Michael Dummett] had just delivered a lecture on Wittgenstein on logical necessity. Dreben arose excitedly to disagree with the interpretation. “But Burt,” Dummett said, ”you think all this stuff is nonsense.” To which Dreben replied, “No, no, no, no, no! . . . Well, yes.”

I can easily see the allure of being Drebenized. What fun it must have been to learn from such a clever and funny man!

There has been a larger discussion of Dreben’s thought and influence some years ago on Leiter’s blog *here*, and I am certainly in no position to add to it. But I would like to reflect for my own purposes on the meaning and truth in one of Dreben’s more notorious declamations: “Philosophy is garbage. But the history of garbage is scholarship.”

Philosophy is ridiculously hubristic. It is an attempt to get at the deepest meanings of things, to grasp that which ultimately and finally is, to comprehend not just what happens to be but what must be, and to draw from these grand truths a vision of how human life should proceed. Anyone trying to do this has to begin by presuming that there is some final account of things, and also that the human mind is capable of coming to know it. Both presumptions are unwarranted; and the implausibility of the second presumption undercuts any justification for believing the first one. Who are humans to presume to know such things? While we are so very clever at manipulating objects and forging tools and constructing strategies, there is little reason to think our brains have evolved for the purpose of understanding Ultimate Truth. Our brains have evolved for the simply purpose of getting by well enough to reproduce. That salutary end can be achieved with minds that are good only for small and local things. Even the notion that there is some Ultimate Truth could be completely misguided. There is no guarantee that the universe must obey what we convince ourselves to be logically necessary.

Even if I am wrong about this – if it turns out there is an Ultimate Truth, and humans in principle can come to know it – then it must be admitted at the very least that it is really, REALLY hard to get to that truth. Given our propensity to mess up in comparatively lower-level cognitive tasks (consider the reliability of operating systems, and the multitudinous failures of bureaucratic institutions), it should be no surprise that so far no one has really come up with a thoroughly compelling philosophy. David Hume provides a just observation:

 It is easy for a profound philosopher to commit a mistake in his subtile reasonings; and one mistake is the necessary parent of another, while he pushes on his consequences, and is not deterred from embracing any conclusion, by its unusual appearance, or its contradiction to popular opinion. (Enquiry, sec. 1)

Any confidence that, with careful enough thought, we can attain a vision of the True must be weighed against our track record of making the most elementary conceptual mistakes at the outset of any theorizing. We can place on top of that the ingenuity of other philosophers in coming up with compelling objections and devastating counterexamples to claims that might very well have been true. Even if we came across the truth, it would be a miracle if that genuine insight survived our very clever criticality. In the end, if in fact we have buried within us what philosophy would require, then that capacity is so tenuous and frail that the smart money is on humanity’s persistent failure in coming to know anything of metaphysical significance.

(I know I’m not presenting much of an argument here. It’s really only an expression of what Mickey’s father, in Hannah and her Sisters, says in fewer words: “How the hell do I know why there were Nazis? I don’t know how the can opener works!”)

But – for all that – I must confess that it is fun and instructive to read attempts by other philosophers to get at big truths. All right: it’s not fun and instructive for everyone. It’s a genre of literature (fiction? nonfiction?) that has its following. And these followers are improved in several ways by their enthusiasm. The literature of philosophy provides ample material for training critical reading and interpretation. Reading Carnap, and reading Quine, and tracing exactly how they talked past one another (as Dreben did) requires extraordinary care in reading, in forming apt diagnoses, in testing interpretations against one another, and in expressing with precision what is going on.

Moreover, as we try to place great historical philosophers in their times and cultures, we can learn in a general way how efforts at philosophy are shaped by circumstance. No one writes in a vacuum, of course, though Descartes and Spinoza tried. As we come to understand how each philosopher is rooted in some historical period, we come to understand how the philosophy that is generated is an existential reflection on that period. We see, that is, how humans have wrapped their minds around the universe in specific times and places. This in turn gives us more to think about as we craft our own responses to our own times and places. It is really the same insight one gains through travel: seeing how strange other places are helps us to see how strange our own place is. There is some self-knowledge in this, a kind of philosophical humbling, which I believe contributes to a deeper sympathy toward the thoughts of those with whom you disagree.

So, yes, philosophy is garbage. But the history of this garbage is something worth pursuing with scholastic intensity.

In defense of armchairs

Posted in 3QD essays by Huenemann on June 12, 2014

Generally, in any conflict between long-held, seemingly obvious beliefs and new research challenging those beliefs, defenders of the old beliefs will find themselves charged with sitting in armchairs. It never is a rocking chair, park bench, hammock, or divan. It is an armchair, the sort of chair one finds in venerable, wood-paneled clubs where stodgy old men opine about the world’s events more from preconceived opinions than from any well-grounded knowledge. An armchair represents both laziness and privilege, a luxurious class of opinion-mongers who simply will not bother themselves with actual empirical research – the original La-Z-Boys, as they might be called.

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Quotes from Bréhier’s Plotinus

Posted in Uncategorized by Huenemann on June 2, 2014

Émile Bréhier, The Philosophy of Plotinus, translated by Joseph Thomas (UChicago, 1958)

The history of philosophy does not reveal to us ideas existing in themselves, but only the men who think. Its method, like every historical method, is nominalistic. Ideas do not, strictly speaking, exist for it. It is only concrete and active thoughts that exist. The problems which philosophers pose and the solutions they offer are the reactions of original thought operating under given historical circumstances and in a given environment. It is permissible, no doubt, to consider ideas or the representations of reality which result from these reactions in isolation. But thus isolated, they are like effects without causes. We may indeed classify systems under general titles. But classifying them is not giving their history (182).


A true philosophical reform, such as that of a Socrates or of a Descartes, always takes for its point of departure a confrontation of the needs of human nature with the representation the mind forms of reality. It is the sense of a lack of correspondence between these needs and the representation which, in exceptionally endowed minds, awakens the philosophical vocation. Thus, little by little, philosophy reveals man to himself. It is the reality of his own needs, of his own inclinations, which forms the basis of living philosophical thought. A philosophy which does not give the impression of being indispensable to the period in which it appears is merely a vain and futile curiosity (pp. 183-4).


Monod, Solomon’s Secret Arts

Posted in Books by Huenemann on May 22, 2014

Paul Kléber Monod, Solomon’s Secret Arts: The occult in the age of enlightenment (Yale UP 2013).

Joseph Wright, The AlchemystIn 1650, scientific thinking could not be separated from fascination for alchemy, astrology, witchcraft, spell casting, and prophecy – for short, “the occult”. By 1815, the separation was pretty definite, even if attempts to confound the two persist to this day. Monod’s book, focusing on England and Scotland, covers the transition over these years in its many levels and dimensions, illustrating the transition with story after story of various people engaged in one way or another with the occult.

In the early days, many expected scientific discovery to combine with magic and alchemy and thus rediscover a natural wisdom once possessed by Adam, Moses, and Solomon. No one worried that science and alchemy might not mesh; if anything, the worry was that the darker enticements of magic would lead people away from Christian faith. Hobbes’s thorough disdain for the occult was unusual. Nearly everyone else recoiled from Hobbes’s resolute materialism, and remained fully confident of the influence of spirits and invisible powers upon the visible world. Newton and Boyle steered clear of mentioning the occult in their published works, but they privately pursued secret knowledge along with everybody else. “Magic and science, empiricism and the supernatural: within alchemy, these were not in opposition, but constantly played off each other, combining and separating through a language both allusive and elusive, never fully merging but never wholly apart” (51)

In the practical sphere, alchemical remedies and astrological almanacs were booming businesses. This of course led to a proliferation of quacks and charlatans; and this invited the attention of caustic satirists like Jonathan Swift. Between the great scientists’ reluctance to publish openly about the occult, and the broad lampoons of magical thinking, alchemy faded from the intellectual scene over the first half of the 18th century, with a few exceptions. “The Newtonian magi” continued to bring together natural and supernatural knowledge. They insisted on natural explanations where available, but “the mythology of the Egyptians, the cosmologies of the Greeks and the healing powers of pagan priests provided fragmentary evidence of God’s plan for the universe” (159). William Stukely evidenced great interest in Druids, and offered impressive speculations about their ancient origins.

Eventually, by the last half of the 18th century, people had become comfortable enough with devils and ghosts to enjoy the first gothic novels and the first haunted houses. The occult became a mildly scary and fun subject, and less learned authors capitalized on its revival. One stage production, Omai, was rooted in the true story of a Tahitian man brought to London by Captain Cook. This rather fantastic version of the story includes Tahitian sorcerers and ghosts, and also features a segment entitled “Apotheosis of Captain Cook”, a special effect extravaganza in which Britannia herself elevates Captain Cook to heaven. He holds a sextant that resembles a Masonic compass.

In the end, Monod’s book brings on the same realization every great history book tries to bring about: that while some things have changed, other things have not. People are now, have always been, and will always be suckers for magical thinking. They may be intellectually serious about it, or they may be trying to make a quick buck. Perhaps they are trying to restore some mythic unity to all human knowledge, or perhaps they are just lazy and superstitious in their thinking. But if we take ourselves to know better today – if we think that science has prevailed in a battle against magical thinking – then, if we are honest, we must also recognize that science and the occult grew up together, and were for a while as  inseparable as the twins of Gemini.


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