Reading Notes 5/31/14

I’m two-thirds of the way done with ‘Second Foundation’, and it just keeps getting better. I don’t remember the last book I read that I thoroughly enjoyed so much – during a long day at work, I read about seventy pages without a break and didn’t even notice it until it was time to go home. I’m not looking forwar to finishing the series – but thankfully I bought ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ and borrowed ‘The Gods Themselves’, from the library. Crisis averted.

Smith’s ‘Imagining the Kingdom’ has proven to be a fairly challenging book. Aspects of it are brilliant – for example, his analysis and critique of the formative powers of social media. I’m a bit less impressed by one of his major themes, which is a critique of ‘intellectualism’, or the idea that we as humans are primarily knowing agents, or rational agents. I understand that it’s not a scholarly monograph and that it’s more geared towards the on-the-ground beliefs of people, but at the same time, who really thinks that we are purely and only passive receivers of (say) sensory data, academic or otherwise? Smith lays a lot of blame at Descartes feet – all fine and good, but there isn’t any quotation of Descartes, no real argument – just a kind of critique of some kind of Cartesian-ism. He doesn’t offer much by way of argument, which is fine by itself – not everything has to be supported by deductive arguments – but at some point, it’s be nice to see something more substantive than ‘We’re not primarily intellectual creatures’, supported by a Merleau-Ponty quote and an anecdote from a movie.

His overall point, however, runs something like this (this is a necessarily rough breakdown): We need to move past ‘worldview-ism’, past cultivating a way of merely looking at the world. Imagination is a kind of perception of the world and a means by which we constitute the world – therefore, we need to sanctify our imagination (imagination for Smith, ‘…that preconscious, emotional register on which we percieve the world and that, in turn, drives or “pulls” our action.’ p. 158). We do this by immersion in the Story in the liturgy, by which our imagination is sanctified, realigned, rightly ordered, etc. Nothing to really argue with here – though I’ve been struck by the similarity between Smith’s project and Aristotelean ethical thought. It would have been interesting to see him engage a bit with that side of the ethical tradition, because there’s really a lot to draw on there. 

Overall, the book is solid – some of the existentialist language I don’t buy into fully (lots of ‘being-in-the-world’) and it feels like at points he really should have just said ‘Go read Merleau-Ponty and you’ll get what I’m saying’, (lots and lots and lots and lots of quotes from Merleau-Ponty) but it’s a solid piece of philosophy/theology.

I found Nussbaum’s discussion of emotions in Aristotle quite interesting – Aristotle argued that emotions require certain beliefs and to that extent can be rational or irrational, true or false (Smith would disagree with this, as a side note). The centrally important thing, however, is the belief(s) that the emotions are based on. A correct view of the good life is essential to Aristotle’s ethical project:

‘Emotions, in Aristotle’s view, are not always correct, any more than beliefs or actions are always correct. They need to be educated, and brought into harmony with a correct view of the good human life. But, so educated, they are not just essential as forces motivating to virtuous action, they are also, I have suggested, recognitions of truth and value. And as such they are not just instruments of virtue, they are constituent parts of virtuous agency: virtue, as Aristotle says again and again, is a “mean disposition” (disposition to pursue the appropriate) with “with regard to both passions and actions”. What this means is that even were the apparently correct action to be chosen without the appropriate motivating and reactive emotions, it would not count for Aristotle as a virtuous action: and action is virtuous only if it is done in the way that a virtuous person would do it. All of this is a part of the equipment of the rational person of practical wisdom, part of what practical rationality is. Rationality recognizes truth; the recognition of some ethical truths is impossible without emotion indeed, certain emotions are centrally involved in such recognitions.’ (‘The Therapy of Desire’, p. 96)

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Intellect and Reality

So, Kant basically ascribed to the mind a real creative power – things are understandable only insofar as they brought under or within the conditions of sensibility. This I’ll call the active power of the mind, since the categories for understand-ability are supplied by the mind. Now, as I said before, that the mind is in fact an active and not merely passive factor in our knowledge of the world is a fairly incontestable point, but thinking more on this topic led me to think about the intellect in general.

Aristotle held that the intellect was divided into the active (a) an the passive (p). p is the part of the intellect which receives data from the material world, while a acts as a kind of formal cause on the sensory data, forming ideas and thoughts with determinate structure. Aquinas basically held this same view, but tweaked it a bit: p still receives sensory data, but a grasps the form, which it abstracts, from the sensory data (Scotus disagreed with this and believed that the object of the intellect wasn’t the essence or quiddity of a thing, but being itself, but for right now I won’t go into that – for a bit more on that topic, see this post). So you basically have a concept of the intellect (and there’s a lot more to it, with categories like quality and whatnot, but this suffices for present purposes) where it is both passive and active in its knowledge of the world.

The medievals had this great concept: the fit of the intellect to reality. There is some kind of match between the intellect and reality, or the world or whatever you like to call it. Our cognitive faculties are able to allows us to know things about the world – of course, the medievals attributed this to the fact that God had created the world in this way (which I also happen to believe), but whether or not one believes that such a fit is a product of divine creation, it certainly seems that there is in fact a fit between our intellect, or our cognitive faculties and the world in which we live.

This brings me from the medievals ( in my mind, all roads in philosophy lead to the medievals) back to Kant. Where Kant made the mind purely active, the medievals, and the classical tradition as a whole, saw the mind as both active and passive – passive in that there is a world which acts upon our minds, and active in that in some way, the mind acts as a formal cause upon the sensory data received by the mind to impose a determinate form upon the data, either by abstracting the form or essence from the data or by some other means.

Language and Reality

According to Christianity, God spoke the world into existence – and in the Gospel of John we are told that in the beginning was the ‘Logos’ (translated as ‘word’, typically). Erasmus translated this as ‘In the beginning was the ‘conversation’ which I find to be quite interesting – this would mean that on the Christian view, reality is inherently  linguistic in its essence – a view that Aristotle would have agreed with, given is theory that language mirrors reality.

Being the good Wittgensteinian that I am, this leads me to wonder: if reality is in its essence linguistic, is reality then also subjective in its essence? But if this is true, if reality  is linguistic, can we speak of it in any meaningful way?

‎’Propositions can represent the whole reality, but they cannot represent what they must have in common with reality in order to be able to represent it — the logical form. To be able to represent the logical form, we should have to be able to put ourselves with the propositions outside logic, that is outside the world.

Propositions cannot represent the logical form: this mirrors itself in the propositions.

That which mirrors itself in language, language cannot represent.

That which expresses itself in language, we cannot express by language.

The propositions show the logical form of reality.

They exhibit it.

(Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus 4.12-4.121’)