The sifting of human creations! —nothing less than this is what we ought to mean by the humanities. Essentially this means biography; what our colleges should teach is, therefore, biographical history, that not of politics merely, but of anything and everything so far as human efforts and conquests are factors that have played their part. Studying in this way, we learn what types of activity have stood the test of time; we acquire standards of the excellent and durable. All our arts and sciences and institutions are but so many quests of perfection on the part of men; and when we see how diverse the types of excellence may be, how various the tests, how flexible the adaptations, we gain a richer sense of what the terms “better” and “worse” may signify in general. Our critical sensibilities grow both more acute and less fanatical. We sympathize with men’s mistakes even in the act of penetrating them; we feel the pathos of lost causes and misguided epochs even while we applaud what overcame them.
Such words are vague and such ideas are inadequate, but their meaning is unmistakable. What the colleges—teaching humanities by examples which may be special, but which must be typical and pregnant—should at least try to give us, is a general sense of what, under various disguises, superiority has always signified and may still signify. The feeling for a good human job anywhere, the admiration of the really admirable the disesteem of what is cheap and trashy and impermanent—this is what we call the critical sense, the sense for ideal values. It is the better part of what men know as wisdom. Some of us are wise in this way naturally and by genius; some of us never become so. But to have spent one’s youth at college, in contact with the choice and rare and precious, and yet still to be a blind prig or vulgarian, unable to scent out human excellence or to divine it amid its accidents, to know it only when ticketed and labeled and forced on us by others, this indeed should be accounted the very calamity and shipwreck of a higher education.
The sense for human superiority ought, then, to be considered our line, as boring subways is the engineer’s line and the surgeon’s is appendicitis. Our colleges ought to have lit up in us a lasting relish for the better kind of man, a loss of appetite for mediocrities, and a disgust for cheapjacks. We ought to smell, as it were, the difference of quality in men and their proposals when we enter the world of affairs about us. Expertness in this might well atone for some of our ignorance of dynamos. The best claim we can make for the higher education, the best single phrase in which we can tell what it ought to do for us, is then, exactly what I said: it should enable us to know a good man when we see him.
The rest of the lecture can be found here.
John Amos Comenius, The Way of Light, translated by E. T. Campagnac (The University Press of Liverpool, printed by Hodder & Stoughton (London), 1938).
In Via Lucis, vestigata et vestiganda [“The Way of Light,” written in 1641 but not published until 1668], John Amos Comenius proposed to a group of scholars on its way toward becoming the Royal Society of London a new effort on the part of learned Christendom to establish a College of Light, or a broad community of scholars who share the same foundation of knowledge, the same sacred mission, and even the same language. Comenius had been invited by some members of parliament to serve on a commission to reform public education in England. Comenius evidently took his charge very seriously, and the English ended up with more than they bargained for.
A hefty portion of Comenius’s book is dedicated to a careful unpacking of the familiar analogy of learning to light. Since the Fall, darkness has covered the earth, and there has been no shortage of ignorance, pain, and catastrophe. As in medicine, the cure is to remove the cause of the malady, and in this case our cure requires lots more light. And this light is available in three forms: the eternal light, through which God made all that is made, the external light, through which God enlightens our minds in our knowledge of nature, and internal light, shining upon our intellects, our wills, and our feelings. Comenius offers 48 theorems, definitions, and axioms about the behavior of light that reads less like a geometrical treatise on optics than like a series of parables. So, for example, axiom 37 tells us the great light produces great heat, “so if there is a great light in the intellect, a strong inclination of the will is produced towards good things.” The overall effect is to give us confidence that, with the help of God, we can gather together our sources of light to overcome the darkness in which we now live.
Overcoming the darkness will require four campaigns, for universal books, universal schools, a universal college, and a universal language. The universal books will establish a common foundation of knowledge. The first book will be a Pansophia, or “the very marrow of eternal truth, that is, the whole fundamental condition of all things as they are in their ideas”. I can’t help but think of this as something like Spinoza’s Ethics, if only in form – for I am quite sure Comenius would not have approved the content! The second book will be a Panhistoria, or “all the particular actions, accidents and issues of things (which have hitherto been discovered) from their origin up to the present time.” So: something like Hegel’s history, showing how the wisdom of the world has been expressed through concrete particulars. The final book will be the Pandogmatia, recounting all of the “theories or opinions which have been held about things wherever and however they have been produced and whether they are true or mistaken.” So, something like Wikipedia.
The three books put everyone on the same page – literally – and I am sure Comenius’s motivation in producing a compendium of human knowledge is exactly the same as the one that led soon to the early encyclopedias of Moréri, Furetiére, and Chambers. Comenius writes further of the Pansophia that it will have universal scope, setting forth “all things that are necessary for man for this life and the future life to know, believe, to do, and to hope.” It will have clear organization, it will be easy to read, and it will be the only book anyone ever need read – “Fullness, Order and Truth.” Every encyclopedist shares the same goal: to replace the many with the one, in the clearest and most judicious order, with the aim of instructing the reader in the most necessary things. Comenius’s encyclopedic ambitions are most clearly seen in what he says of the Pandomatia: “We are not urging the destruction of all authors of whatever kind they may be who now exist, but rather the gutting of them by means of epitomes, summaries, indices and collections, out of which it will be easy to learn the whole mind of every author upon whatever subject he has written.”
The universal schools have the aim of preparing every mind to share in the light. And Comenius did mean every mind, in his own compassionate vision of no child left behind:
By the pious care of Christian magistrates, provision can be made that all young people, even the children of needy parents and orphans, may, notwithstanding their disabilities, be educated. The richer citizens, for instance, might bring up with their own boys or girls an equal number of poor children of the same age, thus honouring God and earning the gratitude of good men, with great advantage and benefit both to themselves and their children.
The idea is that everyone is helped by making sure that all our children are taught well.
The universal college is not a particular institution, but a network of honorary professors from every nation – like “a Lipsius, a Scaliger, or a Salmasius” – all of whom are dedicated to the sacred task of bringing light into the world: “Universal learning should be their care and their delight.” One of these elites masters of universal learning shall serve as their Head, to whom reports are written and through whom news is shared. The College will be held together by a set of common laws:
These men must form a just estimate of the nobility of their vocation and rejoice that they are appointed to be the teachers of mankind, and that they are sent to plant the heavens and lay the foundations of the earth: they must regard themselves as, by the nature of their office, set to foster that piety enjoined by God; and so they must strive to copy the zeal of the apostles whose task it was to teach all men in all wisdom.
These evangelical masters of learning would guide and oversee the colleges in their own nations and serve as the channels through which the universal books are written and taught.
The universal language is needed, since Latin was quickly fading from the learned world. And good riddance too, Comenius thought; for while Latin has a long and rich history, and an intrinsic nobility, it is hard to learn and often misleads our thinking. Better to start from scratch and construct a language that replicates nature’s own concepts and is easy for the young mind to learn, regardless of what culture the young person is coming from.
Comenius’s aim in bringing about universal learning and a universal language is not merely so that we can bring relief to our blighted present. He also sees it as preparation for the days foretold by the prophets. With our dedicated efforts, and with God’s blessing,
all things will be truly known, not through theories and conjectures, but through the discovery of the very reasons and causes of the things themselves; so that all men who have eyes to see shall with their own eyes perceive not only what those things are which make up the whole fabric of the world, the whole structure of the church and the whole texture of all the ages, but also why not one of these things could be missing or in any other condition than that in which it is actually found. And then that prophecy will be fulfilled that one day it shall come about that men shall cease to be taught by men (Jeremiah 31:34) – that is, be led hither and thither by human authorities – and shall begin indeed to be God-taught (Isaiah 54:13).
And the rest of Comenius’s work is an avalanche of scriptural citations, followed by a devout prayer for success in the eventual illumination of the entire human race.
In many ways, Comenius’s Way of Light is a perfect instance of philosophical revolution in the early Enlightenment. It shows pride in the reach of human knowledge – though always under the umbrella of God’s grace. It is radically democratic, led by the hope that all people can become enlightened about themselves and the natural world. It sets its sights on institutional reform. And, at its heart, it nurses the hope that more knowledge is the panacea to human ills.
“A genius is a god under whose protection each person lives from the moment of his birth.” This is the opinion of Censorinus, a Roman rhetorician of the third century CE. Censorinus tells us that our birthday celebrations are not really about us. Instead, they are banquets of gratitude for our spiritual guardians, or the beings known by the Romans as geniuses. Everybody has one: they are the spirits who make sure we are born, that we survive, that we are protected, and that we flourish. Censorinus writes that our genius “has been appointed to be so constant a watcher over us that he never goes away from us even for a second, but is our constant companion from the moment we are taken from our mother’s womb to the last days of our life.” As the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk observes, this makes every birth in fact a double birth – one for us, and one for our guardian genius.
A bookseller named André-François Le Breton hired an Englishman named John Mills to translate Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopedia from English into French in the early 1740s. It turns out that Mills’ fluency in French was rather limited – a fact he kept concealed from Le Breton. Le Breton went on to secure the publishing rights, engage a printer, and sell advanced copies. But he soon discovered that Mills had not produced a single translation, and didn’t even possess a copy of Chambers’ work – and so, on August 7th of 1745, Le Breton finally caught up with Mills and beat him with a stick.
Le Breton then set about finding some other men to share his financial risk, as well as a new editor and translator. He settled on Abbé Jean-Paul Gua de Malves, and in the new contract with the publisher, it was understood that the French version of the English encyclopedia should expand upon Chambers’ work, and particularly extend its treatment of the arts. Witnessing this new contract, and guiding Gua in this expanded edition, were two further figures – the young author Denis Diderot and the brilliant mathematician Jean d’Alembert. Gua proved himself not entirely up to the task – he struck most of his contemporaries as a mad man – and so eventually Diderot and d’Alembert took over the editorship. It was expected that the project would take three and a half years.
This was in 1747. Twenty-five years later, the French Encyclopédie existed in glorious completion: 17 volumes of 71,818 articles and 3,129 illustrations, with an additional 11 volumes of plates, five volumes of supplements, and a two-volume index. (Chambers’ Cyclopedia, on which the French work originally was to be based, consisted of two volumes.) It remains the single greatest monument of the Enlightenment. The articles covered the higher realms of knowledge – the sciences, mathematics, and philosophy – but it also went into great detail about grubby trades like papermaking and the manufacturing of pins (thus providing Adam Smith with his key example for The Wealth of Nations). The overall intent of the work is best expressed by the Encyclopédie’s own article on “Encyclopédie”:
The goal of an Encyclopédie is to assemble all the knowledge scattered on the surface of the earth, to demonstrate the general system to the people with whom we live, & to transmit it to the people who will come after us, so that the work of centuries past is not useless to the centuries which follow, that our descendants, by becoming more learned, may become more virtuous & happier, & that we do not die without having merited being part of the human race.
Every Enlightenment ideal is right there: the trust that knowledge will make us virtuous and happy, that knowledge is for “the people with whom we live,” and that compiling the entirety of knowledge in a single work is the best part of being human. There were over 160 contributors to the work, including the Olympian Voltaire, the brilliant but obstreperous Rousseau, and the caustic atheist d’Holbach – though the person who contributed the greatest share of content was a man whom history has largely forgotten: the Chevalier Louis de Jaucourt, who wrote a whopping 14,000 articles over ten years, averaging at least four articles each day. He was rich, learned, passionately devoted to the cause, and evidently had little else to do. (De Jaucourt had once written a medical dictionary that would have run to six folio volumes, but his only manuscript was lost at sea on its way to be published in Amsterdam. He shrugged off the loss and went to work for Diderot.)
Jan Amos Komensky, The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart, trans. Howard Louthan and Andrea Sterk (New York: Paulist Press, 1998). Originally published in 1623, but again published in 1663 with additions.
Comenius writes in the person of a pilgrim who has decided to survey all the walks of life before deciding upon one for his own. He meets Search-All, or Ubiquitous, who informs him that the world is a labyrinth and offers to serve as a guide. The pair then meets Delusion, whose job it is to interpret the Queen of the World – Wisdom, also known as Vanity – for others and to teach how all things in the world should be understood. Delusion fits the pilgrim with the bridle of curiosity and the spectacles of delusion (with lenses made of presumption and frames made of a horn called habit). The spectacles make near things seem far, and far things near – but the pilgrim finds that by tilting his head up and looking under the glasses he can sneak some more accurate glances.
The pilgrim, with guide Ubiquitous and interpreter Delusion, travels above the world to look down upon it. He sees that there are six main avenues – the domestic, the crafts and trades, the learned, the spiritual, the rulers, and the soldiers. There is also the Castle of Fortune, and a marketplace where the queen has her residence.
All those who enter the world are given a slip of paper by Fate that tells them to “Rule” or “Obey” or “Plow” or “Learn” or “Judge” and so on. The pilgrim is given “Examine”, and the trio proceeds to the marketplace. The pilgrim finds a great disorder there – all are monstrously deformed in different ways, but they put on masks as soon as they encounter one another. And the misshapen beasts busy themselves in the strangest ways –
Indeed, some collected garbage and distributed it among themselves. Some were rolling logs and stones here and there or hoisting them on pulleys and setting them down again. Some were digging earth and conveying or carrying it from place to place. The rest were working with bells, mirrors, children’s games, rattles, and other trinkets. Others were even playing with their own shadows – measuring, chasing, and trying to catch them. They did so vigorously that many groaned and perspired, and some even collapsed from over-exertion. (chapter 7, section 6)
All behave in foolish ways, and laugh at one another and hurt each other. Some constantly change their clothes and behold themselves in mirrors, while others walk on stilts to be higher than everyone else – and everyone laughs uproariously when they fall down. Delusion of course claims that everything is orderly and the monsters are quite normal human beings. Death walks among them, cutting down people at random, and reminding all that they are mortal – but she is roundly ignored.
They enter into domestic avenue and see married couples and families. Couples are shackled together, usually with one pulling the other along. Most of them have “a flock of children around them, attached to them with bridles. They screamed, shrieked, stank, quarreled, and got sick and died, to say nothing of the pains, tears, and dangers to their own life with which they came into the world” (8.5). As Death would kill children or spouses, the pilgrim expects the survivors to be relieved of the burden – but instead, they weep bitterly and then rush to be chained again to someone else. [It should be noted that Comenius’s first wife and two children died from plague, and his second wife also died young.]
(an excerpt from How You Play the Game):
I have killed three dogs in Minecraft. The way to get a dog is to find a wolf, and then feed bones to the wolf until red Valentine’s hearts blossom forth from the wolf, and then it is your dog. It will do its best to follow you wherever you go, and (like a real dog) it will invariably get in your way when you are trying to build something. Apart from that, they are just fun to have around, and they will even help you fight monsters. If they become too much of a nuisance, you can click on them and they will sit and wait patiently forever until you click on them again.
I drowned my first two dogs. The first time, I was building a bridge over a lake, but a bridge that left no space between it and the water. The dog did its best to follow me around, but it soon found itself trapped beneath the water’s surface by my bridge. Not being smart enough to swim out from under the bridge, it let out a single plaintiff yelp before dying and sinking. Exactly the same thing happened to my second dog, as it was this second episode that made this particular feature of dogs clear to me. I know now to make dogs sit if I’m building bridges. I’m not sure what happened to the third dog, but I think it fell into some lava. There was, again, the single yelp, followed by a sizzle. No more dog.
I felt bad each time, while of course fully realizing that only virtual entities were being killed. Surely some of the sorrow I felt was imported from the real world, where I am fond of dogs and do what I can to avoid drowning or burning them. I could not be said to have developed a meaningful relationship with my virtual dogs, but I was pleased to see them each time they caught up with me, and I was a little sad to realize they wouldn’t be getting in my way anymore. I think I was right to feel at least a little bit bad about killing them. But how can there be any place for emotional or even moral attachments to virtual characters? What could cause me to feel any kind of sympathy or concern for beings that don’t really exist?
The answer probably has something to do with the way humans are wired to form attachments to other beings generally. From the perspective of evolution, it’s obviously good that we form strong attachments to human infants. It’s also good that our ancestors formed strong attachments to pets, and not merely because pets can be trained to help us. Pets also share their germs with us, and those ancient people whose constitutions allowed them to survive their pets’ germs bestowed upon us, their descendants, stronger immune systems. So over time we have come to be wired to love furry little things. This general disposition to like animals probably spills over into our encounters with virtual animals – and so we come to feel attachments to them too.
But to explain our attachments to virtual animals in this way does not necessarily lessen those attachments. After all, similar explanations explain why we like babies and dogs – and even cats – and typically we take those felt obligations very seriously. So unless we have some very good reason to overrule the concerns we naturally feel for virtual animals, we should take those obligations seriously as well. But here is a very good reason to overrule these concerns we feel: unlike real dogs and cats, virtual dogs and cats don’t actually feel anything. They are not any more real than the dogs and cats in dreams or comic books. So while we might naturally feel some attachment to them, we do not have any real obligations to them. Thinking that we do have obligations would be like thinking we should worry about how Snoopy feels if we stop reading Peanuts. There isn’t any real being there to be an object for our concern.
We humans form attachments with the unlikeliest of objects. Anyone who doubts this might consider how they would feel if they were asked to throw away their teddy bear. It is just an object, of course, with no feelings or thoughts whatsoever. No real harm is done to anyone by holding it under water or tossing it into a pool of lava. Yet we would not do such things lightly, since we have formed attachments to our teddy bears. We have been through a lot with them – scary nights and lonely times – and having them in our arms has helped us to feel better. We end up feeling that we owe them something, out of gratitude and respect. When it comes time to part, we might consider passing them along to other children, so long as we can assure ourselves that the teddy bears are going to good homes. At one level this is all silly, of course. But that level is not nearly as important to us as the level on which it is not silly at all.
When it comes time to tear down the old school, we feel concern for the bricks and mortar. We never regard them as sentient, but we think of the role the building has had in our lives – perhaps we have passed through the halls, and so have our children. We have grown up there, and we cherish it. It is, we say, of “sentimental value”, but too often that label is preceded with the qualifier “merely”. There is nothing “mere” about such value. None of us would want to see sentimental value deprived of all significance, even if we realize that sometimes it is necessary to let go. At these moments, we register a loss, and the loss often seems to us immeasurable in the terms of any other calculus.
There is no reason not to form attachments to virtual places and characters as well, though this kind of object is relatively new to the scene, and typically these virtual objects aren’t around for very long even in the best of cases. Consider the story of Jerry the slime. A prominent Minecraft player (“CaptainSparklez”) found himself being followed around by a baby slime with a cute smile. He hesitated to kill it, and decided instead to build it a pen and name it “Jerry”. Jerry eventually de-spawned, as that is the fate of such creatures. CaptainSparklez and his followers were sufficiently distraught to build an enormous tree as a monument to Jerry. Now, to be sure, this whole episode was motivated in large part by the joy of pure silliness, and by players just wanting to have some fun with the idea of memorializing a slime. But, undeniably, there was a primitive attachment that served as a basis for the fun. It is not unthinkable for someone to feel that sort of attachment to a virtual slime – indeed, its possibility is what makes the joke possible in the first place. And even now I can hear CaptainSparklez protest in mock seriousness, “How dare you make fun of Jerry!” But the seriousness is not entirely mocking. (For whatever it’s worth, we may also note that Jerry has his own fans who have created special Jerry mods and a special Jerry game. He has his own Facebook page. Jerry has more friends than I do.)
The point is that we form attachments to things that may have no feelings or rights whatsoever, but by forming attachments to them, they gain some moral standing. If you really care about something, then I have at least some initial reason to be mindful of your concern. (Yes, lots of complications can come in here – “What if I really care for the fire that is now engulfing your home?” – but the basic point stands: there is some initial reason, though not necessarily a final or decisive one.) I had some attachment to my Minecraft dogs, which is why I felt sorry when they died. Had you come along in a multiplayer setting and chopped them to death for the sheer malicious pleasure of doing so, I could rightly claim that you did something wrong.
Moreover, we can also speak of attachments – even to virtual objects – that we should form, just as part of being good people. Imagine if I were to gain a Minecraft dog that accompanied me on many adventures. I even offer it rotten zombie flesh to eat on several occasions. But then one day I tire of it and chop it into nonexistence. I think most of would be surprised: “Why did you do that? You had it a long time, and even took care of it. Didn’t you feel attached to it?” Suppose I say, “No, no attachment at all”. “Well, you should have”, we would mumble. It just doesn’t seem right not to have felt some attachment, even if it was overcome by some other concern. “Yes, I was attached to it, but it was getting in the way too much”, would have been at least more acceptable as a reply. (“Still, you didn’t have to kill it. You could have just clicked on it to sit forever….”)
The Minecraft book is available now (see right column). It was loads of fun to write, and it was even more fun exploring the game with my son. The whole process of working with Kindle Singles was fun, too. The editor I worked with was very helpful, insightful, and thorough.
There is no text more commonly read in philosophy courses than Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy. This is astonishing, given that the work was written well over three centuries ago. To some extent, to be sure, it is so commonly assigned simply because it is so commonly assigned; that is, it is hard to imagine an undergraduate escaping from a program in philosophy without having read the work at least once – because every program assigns it. This is a true perpetual motion machine.
But the book is a natural choice to assign to undergraduates because of its approach. Descartes pretends to cast aside all the crap he learned in high school and figure out for himself what he should believe. This is exactly how we would like to think of undergraduates, leaving the home environment and state-mandated education for the first time and venturing out on their own to discover the world, building their own minds in the process. Descartes asks his readers to doubt everything, and see what remains as indubitable; and he builds a new world upon a new foundation. And that is the ideal of university education – and yes, yes, it is an ideal rarely met, and one that is always under attack by those who would like to see the university as training for the workplace rather than an enterprise in soul-building. (Newsflash: it is going to be soul-building in any event, and our only choice is in deciding what sorts of souls are going to be built.)
But why did Descartes write this work? Was he trying to write a bestselling textbook for university students? Was he excited about his own efforts at soul-building, and intent upon sharing his success with the world? He had each of these motivations, in some sense. He certainly was excited and wanted to be influential. But his chief motivation was to offer to a broad, reading audience in his day a new structure for their beliefs. For any reader keeping score, not much has changed by the end of his work – he starts out believing in God, a soul, and the physical world – throws this all into doubt – and ends up believing once again in God, a soul, and the physical world. What has changed is the arrangement of these beliefs, and what they are based on: Descartes’s world has gained a different structure upon different foundations. His aim in the Meditations is to convince his readers that they can still believe in all the important things they want to believe in, even if they accept the radical revolution in physics and metaphysics that was brewing in the 17th century. It is just that they will have to re-arrange their beliefs a bit.
The view that was being overturned in the 17th-century had its roots in Aristotle’s philosophy. According to this view, the main players in the world are substances, or bundles of matter that have certain natures, and behave in ways according to those natures. Every substance tries to go about its own natural business, but inevitably each ends up getting in another’s way, sometimes in ways we like and other times in ways we don’t like – and thus the world. Descartes and his comrades believed that the content-rich “natures” of substances could be replaced by more austere, geometrical entities. Basically, the new philosophers asked us to replace a blooming, buzzing botanical garden of metaphysical natures, forms essences, modes, and qualities with a sculpture park designed by Mies van der Rohe. It must have looked like a very poor exchange indeed, giving up an extraordinarily rich set of explanatory powers for a set of meager promissory notes that did not encourage much confidence. The philosophers that Descartes was writing to worried about the cost of swapping out one operating system for another: how would the change affect our beliefs in God and in the soul, as well as our commonsensical ways of explaining nature?
So Descartes wrote the Meditations as way of saying, “See? You can still have strong arguments for the existence of God, and for believing in the existence of a soul; and you can have excellent new strategies for explaining why the physical world behaves as it does.” It was meant as a persuasive and reassuring work, a work that demonstrated that you could still do everything you wanted in the new operating system. (I am not sure whether to cast Descartes as Mac or PC; his system was slick, new, radical, and hard to use – so maybe Linux?) His arguments, as countless undergraduates have demonstrated, are not faultless. But that’s okay; they are good enough for Descartes’s primary purpose, which was to show that conversion to the new philosophy does not require giving up on the sorts of arguments valued by philosophers of the time. His overall rhetorical strategy is to demonstrate that from a completely unbiased starting point – one that is achieved through radical skepticism, doubting everything you think you know – it is perfectly possible to end up inhabiting the new system. It was not as foreign as it may have seemed.
Seen in this way, Descartes’s Meditations really is a work that is stuck in a particular historical context. It is safe to say that few readers today are seeking to be reassured that they can give up their Aristotelian metaphysics for a geometrical world view. This makes it all the more surprising that the Meditations is so frequently read today. But the work, of course, has been repurposed: once designed to serve one polemical purpose, it now serves another. Once meant to ease the transition from old to new philosophies, it now eases the transition from pre-philosophical to philosophical thought. And, as one would expect, it succeeds only partway in this new purpose. Students really do find themselves challenged by Descartes’s skeptical doubts – but they are uniformly unimpressed by Descartes’s own solutions. No one buys his arguments. The overall effect, I am afraid, is a general mistrust of philosophical arguments. Students come away thinking that philosophers are much better at raising troublesome, skeptical questions than they are at providing good solutions. Every argument is bound to fail. And this in turn engenders a measure of misology, or a distrust of reason, at least as it applies to philosophical matters. Philosophical theses come to be viewed as indemonstrable matters of taste.
This is unfortunate for our students – and also, by the way, quite unfair to Descartes. Imagine walking into a computer shop, exploring whether to change to a new system. You worry about the new system’s ability to generate spreadsheets. A helpful assistant demonstrates how to set up a short, tidy spreadsheet in the new system. But you reject the demonstration entirely, since you need have no need for the spreadsheet example you have been shown. “No fair!” the assistant pleads. “I was just showing that you could do this sort of thing!” And this is basically what Descartes wants to tell the undergraduate who has just savaged his argument for God’s existence in the third meditation. The student has missed the central point that Descartes’s operating system supplies arguments for God’s existence just as well as Aristotle’s old operating system. But today’s student, of course, has little reason to be impressed by this feature. And that’s why the way that Descartes’s Meditations is usually taught – namely, as a non-polemical, disinterested research into what is known with certainty – ends up being quite unfair to him.
I do not mean to suggest that Descartes was only trying to show that philosophers could still have good arguments within his new operating system. He believed his arguments were truly compelling – and they are indeed much better than our undergraduates take them to be. But his main aim was to get philosophers talking about his arguments, while making use of his new system – that is, he wanted fellow philosophers to try working within his system and find out for themselves that abandoning Aristotle did not mean abandoning philosophy. It is for this reason that he sent out copies of the Meditations to several influential figures, of diverse backgrounds, and published their objections alongside his replies. The resulting publication was itself a demonstration that this new operating system was sufficient for fruitful and intense philosophical discussion – like getting en entity like UPS to use an open-source operating system.
But all this puts teachers of historical philosophical texts in a bit of a quandary. Taking proper measure of an historical work’s context might make it less gripping to modern students (unless they are blessed with geekiness over history). But re-purposing historical works is unfair to those works and leads often to unintended consequences. So should teachers simply leave history alone, and let the dead rest? Or should they plunge ahead anyway, believing that the good in confronting great texts outweighs any mistaken judgments that are encouraged along the way? What is the best way to read/teach this kind of book?
Though I do end up worrying over this question from time to time, in the end I think it is a false dilemma. None of the foregoing concerns should be out of place in an undergraduate curriculum. That is, we can imagine a fantastic class on Descartes’s Meditations in which we read the texts with our own concerns and questions; find problems in the text; introduce more historical circumstance to reorient our reading, and come to a better understanding of the text; and then see whether we have learned any global lessons about history, philosophy, writing, and reading as a result. In the case of the Meditations, we will probably discover that no conceptual revolution is without its costs; that even an antiquated system like scholastic metaphysics had some very real advantages; that revolutions in thinking aren’t “proven” by experiment, but involve a willingness to conceptualize our experience in new ways; and – perhaps most important of all – there is always a deeper story to be told. Books aren’t repositories of truth, but bits of evidence in a crime scene, and it’s up to us to figure out whodunnit and why, and even: so what?
We all seek to capture the world with a net of language. Yet it is in the nature of nets to capture some things and let others slip away, and that goes for languages too. Our words turn experiences into objects, qualities, and actions, and we can build these into a kind of structure, a tower reaching into the sky – but (again) towers can only go so far, and there are always negative spaces surrounding the structure and its beams. What is left unsaid speaks volumes.
We might resign ourselves to this fact – the inescapable limits of what’s sayable – but in fact a great many minds have sought to construct the perfect language, one that carves reality at its joints and captures the grand shebang of human experience. Presumably God was speaking such a language when he spoke the world into being, and perhaps he taught this language to Adam. Or perhaps the perfect language need only be carefully constructed from given, atomic elements that reflect the most basic concepts a mind can have, with rules that keep it innocent from the goofy twisting and mashing that the accidents of history impart to our tongues. Or perhaps we can cook up a language that, like physics, captures the essence of phenomena and parses away every nonessential feature. The payoffs would be inestimable: we would have not only a language that could not possibly confuse, but a language – like that of Jonathan Swift’s horsey Houyhnhnms – whose very grammar would preclude ever saying the thing which was not.
I have long believed that I should love opera. I’m a great fan of “classical” music (a fairly meaningless term, as it encompasses way too much), and view its existence as one of the primary pieces of evidence for believing life is not meaningless. One of the greatest experiences of my life was several years ago when I had the chance to participate in a special seminar on Beethoven’s string quartets. The class incorporated lecturers from various disciplines, and featured a visiting musicologist who knew everything there is to know about those quartets. Accompanying the class was our resident string quartet’s performance of the entire cycle. On successive evenings I was transported into a heavenly region of the soul, one that said everything that can be said about being an embodied mortal with intimations of eternity.
With all that passion, it seems I should love opera. My friends all told me so. But I have tried and tried, only to find it tiresome. The music, of course, is occasionally beautiful – but the drama is so slow, so uneventful, that I have felt the truth of what Mark Twain once recorded:
“I have attended operas, whenever I could not help it, for fourteen years now; I am sure I know of no agony comparable to the listening to an unfamiliar opera. I am enchanted with the airs of “Travatore” and other old operas which the hand-organ and music-box have made entirely familiar to my ear. I am carried away with delightful enthusiasm when they are sung at the opera. But, oh, how far between they are! And what long, arid, heartbreaking and headaching “between-times” of that sort of intense but incoherent noise which always so reminds me of the time the orphan asylum burned down.”
So I was prepared to mark down “opera” as one of those things I just was not engineered to appreciate.
But this week I have subjected myself to Wagner’s Ring cycle – and behold! A breakthrough! I have discovered the key I needed to unlock the secret. I’ll share it here now, for anyone who is in the same position. The key is this: don’t watch opera as drama, in the way you’d watch a play or a film; listen to it as music – with a side accompaniment of a story, which only aims to offer some general themes for reflection. Put the music first, and maintain only a dim awareness of the plot.
I’m not quite through the cycle – Götterdämmuring lies before me – but I am savoring each moment, anticipating what is to come, replaying themes and ideas in my mind. Paradoxically, by paying minimal attention to the story, I am now fascinated by it. But I think it was the music that opened the door for me. It’s too early to say how much this new-found enthusiasm will translate to other operas, but I’m expecting it will. But even if I’ve only learned to appreciate The Ring, I’m glad for it.
(For several months I have lost myself in the thoughts of Peter Sloterdijk, a contemporary German philosopher. I need to continue to read and absorb his works, but the following is a “status report” on what I have found so far.)
“When someone tries to ‘agitate’ me in an enlightened direction, my first reaction is a cynical one: The person concerned should get his or her own shit together. That is the nature of things. Admittedly, one should not injure good will without reason; but good will could easily be a little more clever and save me the embarrassment of saying: ‘I already know that.’ For I do not like being asked, ‘Then why don’t you do something?'” – Peter Sloterdijk
The world we face is not the same as the one Peter Sloterdijk faced in 1983. That world, and Sloterdijk’s Germany especially, was split down the middle, with a belligerent Soviet Union to the east and an exceptionally deadly alliance of nations to the west. Nuclear weapons were primed and ready and held at abeyance only by the mutual recognition that destroying all life on earth would be poor sportsmanship. Germany itself was divided physically by The Wall as well as being fractured throughout in multiple ways by having been the principal aggressor in two world wars, and losers in them both. German philosophers were trying to come to terms with how their glorious and magnificent culture – the home of Goethe, Schiller, Lessing, Beethoven, and Brahms, a culture which was itself a monument to the highest ideals of humanity – could have descended so completely and quickly into the deepest inhumanity. In the bicentennial of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Sloterdijk joined others in wondering whether it was indeed still possible to have any faith at all in reason or in any celebrated ideal of humanity.
But it is also true that the world Sloterdijk faced has not changed much in the last 30 years. The Wall is gone, and the threat of a nuclear holocaust has been replaced by comparatively smaller (though still deadly) threats. But humanist intellectuals remain skeptical of the ideals of the Enlightenment. We see now that it never really was what it pretended to be. Its authors celebrated human freedom while providing a cover story for colonial oppression and subjugation. Scientists strove mightily for a knowledge of nature while industrialists destroyed nature through forge and furnace. Its politicians aspired to democracy while creating wage slaves. The Enlightenment, it seems now, was a theater of false promises at best and a crucible of cruel mendacity at worst.
Where then do we find ourselves in our post-Enlightenment times? In Sloterdijk’s 1983 estimation, we are in an age of cynicism, or enlightened false consciousness. We all know, when we stop to think about it, that the world is not as it should be, and that we are not living as we ought to live. But even as we know this, we numb ourselves to it, and even laugh over the disconnection between what we know and how we live. “We do our work and say to ourselves, it would be better to get really involved. We live from day to day, from vacation to vacation, from news show to news show, from problem to problem, from orgasm to orgasm, in private turbulences and medium-term affairs, tense, relaxed. With some things we feel dismay but with most things we really can’t give a damn” (98-9). Our cities “have been transformed into amorphous clumps where alienated streams of traffic transport people to the various scenes of their attempts and failures in life” (118). We realize all this, and acknowledge it – and then show up at work the next day, since we feel deep down that there really is nothing to be done about it. In this way we are conscious of our situation, and unhappy about it, but resigned to it: “To be intelligent and still perform one’s work, that is unhappy consciousness in its modernized form, afflicted with enlightenment. Such consciousness cannot be dumb and trust again; innocence cannot be regained” (7).
As I’m closer to death than birth, I think from time to time about what to do with my dead body. Of course, in the main I don’t really care. I’ll be done with it, and it will be nothing other than Other People’s Problem, in the deepest existential sense of those words. But sometimes I try to imagine what would be most meaningful to my surviving friends and family. For the most part, I come up empty.
As I work through the recent works of Peter Sloterdijk (Spheres I: Bubbles, Spheres II: Globes), I am chiefly amazed and enthused by his ability to find deep symbolic and mythic connections throughout the history of philosophical thought, and to use that understanding to bring our culture into a startlingly fresh relief. His insights make me feel as if the rest of us are sleepwalking through time. As much as we like to pretend otherwise, we are still mythic beings, ordering our experience according to prehistoric passions and plots. Perhaps every age thinks they are doing something different, and are at last bringing clear and objective thought to what was once distorted through prejudice and magical thinking. But it seems to me that this pretense of objectivity is at an all time high in our culture – for we do have, unquestionably, the most advanced sciences ever. We think now in terms of demythologizing – as if that is ever possible for human beings. We think we can carve our own psychologies out of our theory-making efforts and grasp things in themselves as they are in themselves, if only we make good use of careful experiments and double-blind refereeing processes. We even believe we can see ourselves as we are in ourselves, even when it is we who are doing the looking.
This perspective cuts us off from our own history. For we are instituting a new dateline – something like “Before Darwin vs. After Darwin” or more likely “Before WW2 vs. After WW2″, since that also marks the rise of the modern research university, before which (apparently) no trustworthy science was ever done. We tend to see our new theories and insights as qualitatively different from anything proposed earlier. This turns our history into an inchoate prelude to the present. If we do make the effort to cast a glance backward, we feel that we can sort out the thinking that was on the right track from the crazy or “insufficiently critical” thinking of the past – ignoring the fact that then, as now, everything is thoroughly entwined with everything else, and our current efforts at understanding are in fact not qualitatively different than historical efforts. We are always and forever “in a fine mess,” as Oliver Hardy would say, mixing up mythologies and metaphysics with science, literature, and politics.
When we think of the gradual shift among European cultures from paganism to Christianity, we are likely to see one wacked-out metaphysics being replaced by another: where people once saw divinities in nature, and magical forces permeating their lives, they now saw the Holy Ghost and the salvific powers of the Church alongside the forces of sin and grace. No real advance there: just the exchange of one lunacy for another. But the shift from “Before the Modern” to “the Modern” marks exactly the same sort of transformation: metaphysical lunacy abounds though we are unlikely to see it because we are so closely bound up with it. We are likely to insist just as stubbornly as did the new Christian converts that there is genuine progress in the shift, using of course our new found values to prove how genuine the progress is.
Our own metaphysical lunacy sees individuals as free-floating agents, interested first and foremost in extending their privileges. We are objects rattling around in an uncaring world that has no purpose or end. The power of art and religion is couched only in terms of psychology and sociology – their meaning lies in what they do for us or to us. We conflate reasons with causes. There can be no transcendent or categorical ends, as every end can be understood only as a provisional end adopted by an individual or group. We are content to understand the meaning of life as a matter of choice for individuals to set for themselves.
I am not about to try to call us back to the good old days. Rather, I am pointing out this metaphysics – our metaphysics – as one among many different possible ones. It is not that we have finally seen what is true; it is just that this is where we now find ourselves. Once we grasp this, we can try to understand our mythology as mythology, and then try to integrate it with the mythologies our species has adopted at other times and places. We can begin to see our continuity with our past as thinking, culture-making entities. And then we can begin to see how remarkably weird we are – that is, we can see how arbitrary our metaphysics is, and how strange we are when we take it as granted.
If we manage to attain this perspective, we will have found the sort of skepticism David Hume promoted. In a slogan, Hume’s skepticism was an attempt to recall ourselves to ourselves: that is, to bear in mind our own weaknesses and susceptibility to nonrational influence. He never doubted common sense, or the conclusions of “natural philosophy” or science. But he also knew better than to take them seriously as definitive, proven, or inescapable:
When we see, that we have arrived at the utmost extent of human reason, we sit down contented; tho’ we be perfectly satisfied in the main of our ignorance, and perceive that we can give no reason for our most general and most refined principles, beside our experience of their reality; which is the reason of the mere vulgar, and what it required no study at first to have discovered for the most particular and most extraordinary phenomena. And as this impossibility of making any further progress is enough to satisfy the reader, so the writer may derive a more delicate satisfaction from the free confession of his own ignorance, and from his prudence in avoiding that error, into which so many have fallen, of imposing their conjectures and hypotheses on the world for most certain principles. When this mutual contentment can be obtained betwixt the master and scholar, I know not what more we can require of our philosophy.
The chief difference in this regard between Sloterdijk and Hume is one of method. Sloterdijk shows us our provinciality through exhaustively exploring the other strange metaphysical routes we have taken in the past, along with another strange one – “spherological” – we might now adopt as a live possibility. Hume arrives at a contented agnosticism (his own live option) by deconstructing our “reason” from within.
Sometime in the late 1650s, Robert Boyle built an apparatus that removed the air from within a glass dome. The members of the newly-formed Royal Society promptly set about devising all manner of experiments to perform with the newfangled device. They placed candles, mercury barometers, and then – just as one might expect of unsupervised boys – living mice within the dome and watched what happened as a piston systematically drained the air away. (It is probably a good thing for the local fauna that the experimenters did not have a bigger air pump at their disposal.)
The effects of these experiments were easily seen, but controversies raged nonetheless over what was really going on. Did the device truly empty everything from the dome? Thomas Hobbes, Henry More, and others insisted that a pure vacuum is impossible, and that some sort of rarified matter must remain in the dome. Their reasons for asserting this so confidently are various. Some found the suggestion of a specific volume attached to no material thing unintelligible. Others found it ridiculous to believe that as Boyle expelled the air out of the dome, and nothing took its place, the volume of the universe would necessarily inflate by just that amount.