“Kantian Hurly-Burly” (William James)

Well, Kant’s way of describing the facts is mythological.  The notion of our thought being this sort of an elaborate internal machine-shop stands condemned by all we said in favor of its simplicity…Our Thought is not composed of parts, however so composed its objects may be.  There is no chaotic manifold in it to be reduced to order.  There is something almost shocking in the notion of so chaste a function carrying this Kantian hurly-burly in her womb…The Ego is simply nothing; as ineffectual and windy an abortion as Philosophy can show.  It would indeed be one of Reason’s tragedies if the good Kant, with all his honesty and strenuous pains, should have deemed this conception an important outbirth of his thought.  (Principles I, pp. 363-365.)

William can extend his metaphor–for good or ill.


Bradley Foretells the Coming of McDowell

Into the fullness of the problem raised by sensationalism, into the truth which underlies this ‘metaphor hardened into a dogma’, we are not prepared, nor indeed is it necessary, to enter here.  We will content ourselves on the general question with the remark, that in the act of perception, it is not doubt true to say that the mind is passive.  But to say this is to say one thing, and it is quite and altogether another thing to talk of sensations (in the signification of bare feelings) as though in themselves, and apart from the activity of the mind, they existed as objects of consciousness.  That is to assert that a mere feeling is sufficient to constitute by itself the minimum required for knowledge and reality; and the proof of this assertion has been, is, and ever will be wanting.  It cannot exist since the proof or even the assertion is a sheer self-contradiction; and it is a self-contradiction for the following reason.  An assertion, and much more so a proof, is intellectual; it is a judgment which implies the exercise of the understanding; and the term united by the judgment must therefore fall within the sphere of the understanding.  They must be objects for the intellect, and so, in a sense more or less entire, relative to the intellect; in a word, intelligible.  But the essence of mere sensation was the entire absence of the intellectual, and hence to make one single affirmation with respect to sensation, as sensation, is to treat as relative to the understanding that which is supposed to exclude the understanding; and this is a contradiction.

To pursue with the reason an object which when found is to be irrational, to think the opposite of thought while fixed as opposite, to comprehend the incomprehensible yet without transforming it–such is the task of that which calls itself the ‘philosophy of experience’.  It is the pursuit of a phantom for ever doomed to fade in our embrace, a mocking shadow beyond the horizon of our grasp, known to us as the unreality of all that we can hold, and whose existence must perish at the threshold of human possession.

Philosophy as a Managerial Concern (Heidegger)

In the phenomenology of spirit, as consciousness’s becoming-other-to-itself and coming-to-itself, “forms” of consciousness emerge, as Hegel says; but this emergence of forms of consciousness has nothing to do with the procedure, now becoming routine and stemming from various motivations, of classifying the so-called types of world views and types of philosophical standpoints according to just any schema.  These typologies and morphologies would be a harmless way of passing time, if at the same time the odd idea were not in play that, by placing a philosophy in the net of types, one has decided on the possible and of course relative truth of that philosophy.  This urge toward classification and such like always begins at a time when the lack of the power to do philosophy gets the upper hand, so that sophistry comes to dominate.  But sophistry provides itself and its own barrenness with some respectability by first catching whatever ventures to emerge in philosophy in the net of standpoints, and then, having given each type a label, by leaving it with the people.  This label sees to it that, regarding the philosophy in question, one will be interested in its label only so as to compare it with another label.  Subsequently, the literary discussions about the label give rise to a literature which in its kind may be quite considerable.  Consequently, the Kant literature is not only more important than Kant himself, but above all else it reaches the point where no one any longer gets to the matter itself.  The procedure reflects the mysterious art of sophistry, which always and necessarily arises along with philosophy and controls the field.  Nowadays the power of sophism has “organized” itself, one of the many indications of this being the popularity of typologies of philosophical standpoints–typologies which appear in various disguises (manuals and series).  Philosophy becomes a managerial concern–a diabolical condition to which the younger scientific minds, rare enough as they are nowadays, fall prey in their prime.  But the reason for mentioning these seemingly remote things at exactly this point is the fact that in their confusion these typologies appeal to Hegel’s Phenomenology, in the belief and pretense that in Hegel a similar typology is aimed at, although without the benefit of contemporary depth psychology and sociology.

Heidegger, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (p. 29)

Although this seems as timely as when it was written in the 1930’s, if not more so, I am interested in it right now because I think there is a similar understanding of Bradley afoot, as if he were spreading a net of types in his work.  He is not–no more than Hegel was.  His work is no more managerial than Hegel’s.

Anyway, sophistry is internal to philosophy, always present when philosophy is present.  Sophistry is philosophy’s shadow.  And the rise of the isms is always a bad sign, in a time, in a country, in a department, in a mind.




A Matter of Chance? *Chuck* and Jane Austen, and the Final Episode, Again

A passage from Stuart Tave’s Some Words of Jane Austen:

All the heroines find happy endings and they all deserve them, as each has, in one way or another, worked, suffered, learned.  But if they do not get more than they deserve they often seem to arrive at, or be helped to, the happy ending by a stroke of luck…at the right moment.  The happy ending is not guaranteed by their actions.  What seems to be more important than the sudden and fortunate event, however, because it precedes the ending again and again, in whatever manner the end is produced, is that the heroine is prepared to accept unhappiness.  The endings of Jane Austen’s novels are never sentimental because before she will allow the happy result the heroine must face the fact that she has lost…The reader may refuse to believe that any of these things will happen because he has been given a different set of expectations, but the heroine must believe.  She must not simply see the threat as another obstacle that she can do something about, and she must not despair because, having lost, there is nothing in her life for her to do.  She must really see it as a loss, absorb it as an irreversible fact, and then come to terms with herself and go ahead with what she must do now.  She often finds herself in the same place and in the same company as she was at the beginning, but she cannot be the same person herself because time has made a difference and things will never be the same again.  She must in the same place face a new time, and it is very hard…[The heroines] must accept their unhappiness before they are granted happiness.  The reward then is not the essential thing because it need never have arrived; that may well be dependent on chance; what is important is that at the time it is granted the heroine is worthy of a happiness that has a meaning.  She would have been worthy of it even if her lot had proved unhappy because in her place she has used her time well, and that is not a matter of chance.

This is a promising candidate for the most important paragraph ever written about Austen, but I want to appropriate it for thinking about the final episode of Chuck.  Of course, to do so requires changing out the ‘heroine’ for ‘hero’–but it is also worth remembering how insistently the show portrays Chuck himself as ‘feminine’. (His girlish screams, his only learning the woman’s part of the tango, etc., etc.)

Think particularly about the scene after Sarah has shot Quinn and Chuck has grabbed the Intersect glasses.  Chuck knows that Ellie can use the glasses, after modifying them, to restore Sarah; that has been Chuck’s plan and he tells Sarah so as he looks at the glasses.  But if he does not use them himself and download the Intersect, Beckman and everyone in the venue will die when the bomb explodes.  The Intersect is necessary to defuse the bomb.  Chuck explains this to Sarah, and she nods, acknowledging the necessity.  She understands what the choice means for her, but especially she understands what the choice means for Chuck.  Chuck puts on the glasses and downloads the Intersect.  He defuses the bomb.

I isolate this moment because it brings into clear focus Chuck’s willingness to accept unhappiness.  His last chance to do something himself to bring about his happiness goes up in the smoke that issues from the Intersect glasses after the download.  But he does not despair, he does not simply give up.  He saves everyone.  In doing so, at least from his point of view, he loses Sarah.  He believes that.  He sees it as an irreversible fact.  He may hope that something will change; but he can no longer expect it to do so.  He must now in the same place, in Burbank, face a new time–and it is very hard.  He is alone again and anew in Burbank.  Choosing to save everyone from the bomb rather than to bring Sarah back (and her willingness for him to do that) is his way (and, it turns out, I believe, hers) of showing that he (and she) is worthy of a happiness that has a meaning.  They have made similar choices before, but never one where they lose so much–not just their life together, but even Sarah’s memory of their life together, and all of her growth during that the time of their life together.

This is perhaps the central reason I think the kiss works.  Is it a Disney-esque device, as Morgan himself admits when he suggests it?  Yes.  But the point is that Chuck has worked, suffered, learned.  (We can also say these things about Sarah mutatis mutandis.)  He has used his time well, and that is not a matter of chance, not Disney-esque.  As much as we viewers may want that reward, the success of the kiss, for them both, that is not the essential thing.  The essential thing is Chuck’s acceptance of his unhappiness.

That he has accepted it is borne out on the beach.  He tells Sarah to trust him, that he will always be there for her.  But crucially he also says that he does not expect anything of her.  He is reconciled to losing her, but that has not changed how he feels about her or his desire to be there for her.  As I said in my book, Chuck will be her husband even if she chooses not to be his wife.  He is worthy of happiness; he is worthy of her.  The boy-man Nerd Herder is gone.  A fully grown and self-possessed man is beside her.  Seeing him, and seeing him to be what he is, she wants to be kissed.  She is ready to remember.



Bradley’s Critique















That logic has already, from the earliest times, proceeded upon this sure path is evidenced by the fact that since Aristotle it has not required to retrace a single step, unless, indeed, we care to count as improvements the removal of certain needless subtleties or the clearer exposition of its recognized teaching, features which concern the elegance rather than the certainty of the science. It is remarkable also that to the present day this logic has not been able to advance a single step, and is thus to all appearance a closed and completed body of doctrine. If some of the moderns have thought to enlarge it by introducing psychological chapters on the different faculties of knowledge (imagination, wit, etc.), metaphysical chapters on the origin of knowledge or on the different kinds of certainty according to difference in the objects (idealism, skepticism, etc.), or anthropological chapters on prejudices, their causes and remedies, this could only arise from their ignorance of the peculiar nature of logical science. We do not enlarge but disfigure sciences, if we allow them to trespass upon one another’s territory.  [emphasis mine]  The sphere of logic is quite precisely delimited; its sole concern is to give an exhaustive exposition and a strict proof of the formal rules of all thought, whether it be a priori or empirical, whatever be its origin or its object, and whatever hindrances, accidental or natural, it may encounter in our minds.

I have been reading and teaching F. H. Bradley.  I have also been reading about him–reading T. S. Eliot, Geoffrey Hill, Alan Donagan and others.  Bradley wrote wonderfully (and I have remarked on his prose previously on the blog).  But Bradley was a genuinely gifted thinker as well as stylist.  At the heart of his work is stationed the acknowledgment that Kant expresses above (“We do not enlarge but disfigure…”) and Bradley observes it dutifully throughout all his work.

Consider one important, wholly characteristic passage:

The supposed gulf between sheer errors and utter truths is, again, created by the same vice of abstractionism.  A truth so true that it has no other side, and an error so false that it contains no truth, I have condemned as idols.  They are to me no better than the truths which are never at all born in time, or again the truths whose life does not pass beyond that which is made and unmade by chance and change…

On the one hand it is the entire Reality alone which matters.  On the other hand, every single thing, so far as it matters, is so far real, real in its own place and degree, and according as more or less it contains and carries out the in-dwelling character of the concrete Whole.  But there is nothing anywhere in the world which, taken barely in its own right and unconditionally, has importance and is real.  And one main work of philosophy is to show that, where there is isolation and abstraction, there is everywhere, so far as this abstraction forgets itself, unreality and error.

This:  Bradley’s peculiar anti-reductionism.  Bradley’s (Absolute) idealism largely resolves into this anti-reductionism.  It is easy to miss it, in part because Bradley’s talk of abstractionism makes you think up not down as reductionism usually does.  The anti-reductionism yeilds an ideal-ized version of Butler:  Everything is what it is and not another thing, and in the place that it is and not another place, and to the degree that it is and not to another.

Everything is justified as being real in its own sphere and degree, but not so as to entitle it to invade other spheres, and, whether positively or negatively, to usurp other powers…And it is the true Absolute alone that gives its due to every interest just because it refuses to everything more than its own due.  Justice in the name of the Whole to each aspect of the world according to its special place and proper rank–Reality everywhere through self-restriction and in denial…

For Bradley, philosophy enforces justice in the name of the Whole.  Isolation discounts the Whole for the sake of a part; abstraction discounts the part for the sake of the Whole. We may, if we need, knowingly isolate or knowingly abstract–knowingly discount Whole or part for the sake of the other.  But we must not allow ourselves to forget what we are doing, and so lose either the Whole or the part.  Bradley knew that to take thought is almost always to isolate or to abstract, and so he knew that taking thought renders the thinker liable to unreality or error.  The only way to resist the unreality or error is to remain constantly aware not only of the product of isolation or abstraction, but also of the process of isolation or abstraction that produced it, and so not lose sight of the product’s limited value and reality.  Philosophy itself matters, remains real, only through self-restriction and in denial.  Bradley would have appreciated J. L. Austin’s metaphilosophical reminder–neither a be-all nor and end-all be.

Bradley’s work is a remarkable conceptual successor of Kant’s; it is thoroughly Critical, and so thoroughly critical.  It builds nothing but character.



Philosophical Investigations and Three Kinds of Illusion

I am linking an essay of mine that has been hanging out in my Huh? File.  That is, the file in which I put things I have written whose merits and demerits are unclear to me, or so nearly even that I cannot decide whether to invest any more effort in them.  I wrote this for viva voce delivery.  I don’t know that it deserves further work, deserves my trying to make it a full-on scholarly essay.  If any of you have the time and the curiosity to read this, let me know what you think.  Thanks in advance!

Philosophical Investigations and Three Kinds of Illusion

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