Tuesday, May 24, 2016

If humans are designed for knowing, then ...

Aristotle says that man by nature desires to know.  Like all Aristotelian claims, this one is wrapped up in a view of nature at large.  For Aristotle one of the primary features of nature is that it is teleological—it is directed towards an end.  This doesn’t mean, like a car, that it its wheels are pointed in a specific direction and will go that way—but that, to use this metaphor, all of the features of the car are designed for the task of going.[1]  Similarly, if we want to know what humans are, we examine what they are and this tells us their end. The most dominant features, so the story goes, of humans include reason and senses (and presumably memory).  These features combine to make a being designed to know. 
This story should raise some questions, for those of us with the advantage of not being inculcated in the Christian tradition of knowledge.  For were we to take a longer view of human being—that is, both onto- and phylogenetically—we might witness long comically futile episode in which “knowledge” (what precisely this means should also be in question) is neither “kept” nor implemented into human activity.  What is more common in contemporary human life than the sin of akrasia, in which the person fails to act on what she knows?  The woman knows that smoking a cigarette is a risky behavior, but she nonetheless does it.  The man knows that others are not—by virtue of their ethnic association—stupid or smart or sexy, but still judges them as if this were so.[2]
One can explain akrasia in different ways, but the phenomenon still shows that humans bear knowledge that does not change their behavior.  And if one “knows” something but cannot act in accord with this knowledge, of what value is this “knowledge”?
So then let’s adopt the alternative, unsightly thesis: humans do not desire to know.  The human being desires this and that, but one does not desire to know.  If this is the case, how do we who have the unfortunate task of “teaching” them complete this mission?  For even if people do not desire to know, they still must be taught.  The child must wash his hands, he must learn about the Aristotelian concept of teleology, and he must be able to perform the mathematic operations allowing him to understand his wealth or poverty.

[1] A much more interesting and accurate analysis might develop here, were it not we were interested in talking about knowing, since cars are hardly designed simply for “going”!
[2] The phylogenetic view is more tragic, as human lives are expended and exhausted as a result of knowing but not implementing this knowledge.  For example, consider threats to public health that are ignored or suppressed because of their perhaps relatively smaller effects on politics or on the economy.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Light and reality

The object has two deceptive images, counterposed.  First, the object is seen from above and is a circle with a whole in the center. Second, the object is seen from in front and is a square that is solid. A circle and a square cannot be one another, but both are true.

Yet in a third image we see the unity of the two images, because we can see that a cylinder sits before us which looks like a square when seen from above and like a circle when seen from above. The third image presents a "whole real."

But this truth, which is taken for truth (wahrnehmen, one might say), is also false.

For what is deceptive is not the view, but the light. The light illuminates, we say, and in so sayinng we imply that things are what they appear to be when we have woven together various appearances.

We have the man when we witness him in each state of development and growth, from walking on four to walking on two to walking on three.

On the non-existence of reflection

In an NYRB essay on former intelligence czar Michael Hayden’s new memoir, the author notes a curious moment where Hayden describes the interaction of intelligence figures across borders who meet and talk shop. In this tête-a-tête occasionally a moment emerges that Hayden calls a “creation mythology,” in which his counterpart would make a comment passed off as fact that expresses a non-critical judgment of political conviction.  His example: a remark that Serbian Muslims do not care for the lives of their children.  Hayden then turns this realization back on himself and wonders if his counterpart similarly treats some of his own comments in this way as mere “creation mythology.” And he concludes that yes, this must be the case.
I cluck like a chicken and say “no shit” to myself, because I am enlightened, and know all about the inestimable value of reflection, and feel a little warm inside knowing that I am enlightened. Then I start to think that reflection and intelligence are not synonymous. I think about how so many people are intelligent in being able to understand and apply rules and methods.  But that this does not mean that they are capable of reflection (as I am!).
This reminds me of a period when I was a graduate student thinking about “the gift” and using this terribly abstract concept to make sense of my life.  An erstwhile girlfriend told me that this was a mistake. This judgment became the more true as I slowly suffered through the beginnings of an emotional decline.
Yet what I was doing at that moment was—in at least one respect—reflection.  I was taking a concept that I was obligated to learn as a student of philosophy and was turning the concept back on my own life.  This is why people study philosophy, I believe (I hope). They are bedeviled by concepts that have a personal resonance.  Through whatever path led me to philosophy (long Sunday mornings in church) a concept bedeviled me, and either that bedevilment continued or was replaced by a newer, more robust, more “sophisticated” bedevilment.  The point is that the activity was personal in an essential respect.
To approach this phenomenologically, the ego has an object that it attends to and becomes (in the sense that it momentarily dispenses with self-consciousness).  This is how the mechanic or the philosopher-technician works.  Without self-consciousness, the ego cannot be reflective.
In the act of reflection, by contrast, the ego poses the object over against itself, yet it remains aware of itself in this act of attention, such that it can counterpose the object to itself.  This is reflection: turning the concept back upon the thinker—becoming self-conscious.  
And yet, to turn it against oneself means to draw forth some knowledge of oneself (an object of consciousness) and to relate it to the first object—the concept. One has doubled the objects.  If we had imagined that in self-consciousness we somehow had knowledge of the self outside of objecthood, that is false. 
This is what constitutes the act of reflection.  But then I have to turn back to this essay and wonder what it is that I think I know when I judge Michael Hayden’s non-critical concept of “creation mythology.”   I do not know why he calls it a creation mythology, although I understand why it might be a mythology.  Most accounts call this ideological consciousness.  In Marx and Engel’s writings, ideological consciousness is a knowledge of the world already shaped by the class interests to which one belongs yet to some degree oblivious of being shaped by these class interests.  This concept can be extended to include political and ethnic interests or investments.  It is generally conceived as a false consciousness.
  But what strikes both myself and the essay’s author is Hayden’s failure to recognize until writing this memoir—or simply his failure to thematize in any meaningful way—that the notion of a creation mythology applies to himself as equally as it does to his erstwhile counterpart.

This lack is generally characteristic of dramatically successful people: they do not reflect on themselves in any meaningful way.  In a certain sense all of us fail to truly reflect on ourselves, because we are not capable of knowledge of the self outside the frame of objecthood or representation.  We cannot depart from our prejudices and therefore never actually witness their shortcomings. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Confessions, Redux

More than a thousand years have passed since Augustine—now known by the name Saint—started composing his famous Confessions. Augustine senses a profound interiority, a deep memory in which he finds what constituted him.  He calls this interiority God. The dream of deep interiority is not disconnected from the violence on the streets of Baltimore.  Is it paid for by black bodies, Te-Nihisi Coates?  Well, no, because Augustine was pre-American, pre-modern slave trade.  But it continues and finds a new ground.

 Our interiority is not the interiority of Augustine.  His was an interiority where there was no inner life: he watched Ambrose read to himself with amazement. One read, in Augie’s time, aloud and heard the words spoken. This explains, in part, the power of the Qur’an today, because of its insistence on a unique aural aspect. To read aloud is to populate a room with two and to make oneself into a hearer. 

Our interiority is again a striving for solitude. The best of us strive for solitude through music played at a volume where the music seeps from our earbuds into the atmosphere and irritates others.  We want to block out the external world and to have one thing for ourselves. In the automobile, with the windows closed or with the windows open.  In the latter situation we are evangelists: “Join the jam!”

Tuesday, May 10, 2016


Let’s watch “Battlestar Galactica” or “Star Wars” together and immediately we are met with an image that denies humanity, for humanity did not evolve, but has existed forever. “A long time ago in a galaxy far away.”[1] Instead it has suffered tremendous turns of fate.  These are Christian concepts no doubt.  Can we both accept the evidence of evolution and enjoy “Star Wars” as simply a moral allegory (I puke a little in my mouth at the thought)?

My body is a vestige of eternity, in a poetic sense, that what made it has been handed down throughout myriad differentiations but by continual selection and repetition.  At some profound level, I am a single-celled organism. How did organic life begin, I have to ask myself, and I do not know.  How did what is non-organic give life to the organic?

But even this is a diversion, a reinscription of the anxiety of nothingness and a clinging to some unique quality that differentiates us from the whole of what is.

Whereas, we are quite unique, albeit meaningless.  What we know now we will never know again, yet our pretensions to knowledge will leave this past moment powerless to be anything other than ignorance.

[1] Yes, I said denies humanity, for although humans may have existed since time immemorial, they are no longer mammals part of a natural universe, but a form transhistorical.  Therefore, they are no animal, but Godhead.