27 November 2006

Monday Quote Frenzy - Samuel Beckett - Better to Seek

From Watt:

And yet it is useless not to seek, not to want, for when you cease to seek you start to find, and when you cease to want, then life begins to ram her fish and chips down your gullet until you puke, and then the puke down your gullet until you puke the puke, and then the puked puke until you begin to like it. The glutton castaway, the drunkard in the desert, the lecher in prison, they are the happy ones. To hunger, thirst, lust, every day afresh and every day in vain, after the old prog, the old booze, the old whores, that's the nearest we'll ever get to felicity, the new porch and the very latest garden. I pass on the tip for what it is worth.
And so do I.

20 November 2006

Monday Quote Frenzy – Tarski on Science for Its Own Sake

I’ve been working through basic texts on the idea of the university. A frighteningly large number of them are titled ‘The Idea of the University’, as if they could not escape the shadow of the original by John Cardinal Newman. (Talk about the anxiety of influence!) Newman’s work delved into a number of topics that are still points of debate, of which one that he is particularly credited with kicking off is the idea that knowledge is worthwhile for its own sake, independent of any worldly use to which it could be put.

The argument tends to focus on the traditional liberal arts, presumably because they are the subjects frequently targeted as useless. The sciences, by contrast, are now considered so very useful that one seldom hears questions about the worth of even those parts farthest from the mundane (such as cosmology and string theory). But does that mean that scientific knowledge is in some fundamental way different from liberal knowledge? Or, should we expect that all other parts of liberal knowledge will eventually make the transition to utility, as have such other former philosophies as psychology and political theory? Or, as I prefer to think, are the sciences fundamentally liberal arts for which additional applications to worldly action have been found or fabricated?

An intriguing assessment of the virtue in treating science as knowledge of value for its own sake was made by the mathematician Alfred Tarski, as he closed out his 1944 article "The Semantic Conception of Truth and the Foundations of Semantics," published in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (vol. 4):

I should like to conclude this discussion with some general and rather loose remarks concerning the whole question of the evaluation of scientific achievements in terms of their applicability. I must confess I have various doubts in this connection.

Being a mathematician (as well as a logician, and perhaps a philosopher of a sort), I have had the opportunity to attend many discussions between specialists in mathematics, where the problem of applications is especially acute, and I have noticed on several occasions the following phenomenon: If a mathematician wishes to disparage the work of one of his colleagues, say, A, the most effective method he finds for doing this is to ask where the results can be applied. The hard pressed man, with his back against the wall, finally unearths the researches of another mathematician B as the locus of the application of his own results. If next B is plagued with a similar question, he will refer to another mathematician C. After a few steps of this kind we find ourselves referred back to the researches of A, and in this way the chain closes.

Speaking more seriously, I do not wish to deny that the value of a man's work may be increased by its implications for the research of others and for practice. But I believe, nevertheless, that it is inimical to the progress of science to measure the importance of any research exclusively or chiefly in terms of its usefulness and applicability. We know from the history of science that many important results and discoveries have had to wait centuries before they were applied in any field. And, in my opinion, there are also other important factors that cannot be disregarded in determining the value of a scientific work. It seems to me that there is a special domain of very profound and strong human needs related to scientific research, which are similar in many ways to aesthetic and perhaps religious needs. And it also seems to me that the satisfaction of these needs should be considered an important task of research. Hence, I believe, the question of the value of any research cannot be adequately answered without taking into account the intellectual satisfaction which the results of that research bring to those who understand it and care for it. It may be unpopular and out-of-date to say it -- but I do not think that a scientific result which gives us a better understanding of the world and makes it more harmonious in our eyes should be held in lower esteem than, say, an invention which reduces the cost of paving roads, or improves household plumbing.

Tarski’s full article is available on the Web. I used the version on the Computational Philosophy web site, which was transcribed into hypertext by Andrew Chrucky.

16 November 2006

Arendt Centennial

The November-December 2006 issue of Tikkun includes a tribute to Hannah Arendt on the centenary of her birth. I am somewhat of a fan myself; the epigram to this blog is taken from her essay “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship”. The comments in Tikkun are mostly not interesting to me, as they focus on Arendt as Jew. But the two below were worth reproducing.

Eva Hoffman, one of the greatest of modern Polish writers, highlights the fact that Arendt’s difficulty is rooted in her importance.

Was there ever a thinker less sentimental than Hannah Arendt? Her work has a certain ruthlessness, an uncompromising analytical rigor, which always trumps sympathetic or affective bias. But her severity is consistently deployed in the service of an exacting standard: what she wants from her subjects is a three-dimensional awareness of their “political” situation—that is, the framework of formal relations which defines their public identity and their position as members of a social body. Only from such an awareness, Arendt repeatedly suggests, can a person, or a collective, make truly conscious, truly realistic choices. Arendt underestimated the values of subjectivity, specific attachments, and art. But what she understood powerfully was that the isolated life is not worth living, that we are shaped by our actions and transactions with others, and that we express ourselves most fully as free and equal actors negotiating our place among others, rather than trading on our origins. Between community and solidarity, she chose, always, solidarity. This form of universalism—particularly at a time when we see the dangers of extreme communal sentiments—is very much worth keeping in mind.

Tanya Reinhart is a professor of linguistics at Tel Aviv University. She draws on one of the essays published in Between Past and Future. The topic comes from her discussion of the moral sense in Socrates, and reappears in other works.

Arendt has been a big inspiration to me, but trying to explain why would take too much space. The easiest thing would be to provide a favorite quote: “Since man contains within himself a partner from whom he can never win release, he will be better off not to live in company with a murderer or a liar. Or, since thought is the silent dialogue carried on between me and myself, I must be careful to keep the integrity of this partner intact; for otherwise, I shall surely lose the capacity for thought altogether”

This concept of the dual self, of thought as conversation between the self and some internal avatar, is very powerful. G. H. Mead develops a version of it in his Mind, Self, and Society (Chicago, 1934), which he calls the ‘generalized other’. In his argument, it is largely a social construct. As C. Wright Mills (of whom more at a later date) describes it, “The structure and contents of selected and subsequently selective social experiences imported into mind constitute the generalized other with which the thinker converses and which is socially limited and limiting.” Mills considered this essential to understanding the social conditioning of rationality.

It is conversing with this internalized organization of collective attitudes that ideas are logically, i.e., implicitly, “tested.” Here they meet recalcitrance and rejection, reformulation and acceptance. Reasoning, as C. S. Peirce has indicated, involves deliberate approval of one’s reasoning. One operates logically (applies standardized critiques) upon propositions and arguments (his own included) from the standpoint of a generalized other. It is from this socially constituted viewpoint that one approves or disapproves of given arguments as logical or illogical, valid or invalid.

The reference is to Collected Papers of Charles Peirce, vol. II, 108, Cambridge, MA, 1934.
What we call illogicality is similar to immorality in that both are deviations from norms. We know that such thought-ways change. Arguments which in the discourse of one group or epoch are accepted as valid, in other times and conversations are not so received. That which was long meditated upon is now brushed aside as illogical. Problems set by one logic are, with a change in interests, outgrown, not solved. The rules of the game change with a shift in interests, and we must accept the dominant rules if we would make an impress upon the profile of thought. Our logical apparatus is formulated by the rebuffs and approvals received from the audiences of our thought. When we converse with ourselves in thought, a generalized other as the carrier of a socially derived logical apparatus restricts and governs the directions of that thought. Although not always the ultimate critique, logical rules serve as an ultimatum for most ideas. Often on this basis are selected out those ideas which will not be spoken, but forgotten; those that will not be experimentally applied, but discarded as incipient hypotheses. … Within the inner forum of reflection, the generalized other functions as a socially derived mechanism through which logical evaluation operates.
The Mills quotes are from ‘Language, Logic and Culture’, which was originally published in American Sociological Review, v. 4, #5, October 1939, and later reprinted in Power, Politics and People, a collection of Mills’ essays edited by Irving Louis Horowitz.

Needless to say, the ‘generalized other’ is a powerful argument for continuing liberal education. A responsible person must take on as a perpetual project the refinement of the self’s ‘other’. The responsible educational system will, at the least, endeavor to provide people with the skills and tools needed to carry out this project.

13 November 2006

Monday Quote Frenzy – Søren Kierkegaard

However much one generation may learn from another, there is one thing it will never be able to learn from its predecessor, and that is the genuinely human factor. In this respect every generation begins afresh. Its task is the same as that of every previous generation, and it gets no further, unless its predecessor happens to have shirked its duty and deceived itself . . . . No generation has ever learned from another how to love, no generation can begin other than at the beginning, and the task of one generation is never any shorter than that of its predecessors, and if anyone, unlike the preceding generation, should be unwilling to stay with love but wants to go further – then it is nothing but idle and foolish talk. But lots of people find it hard to set aside their belief in universal progress, even in the field of love. “We must keep moving!” they say. “We must go further!” And if their mania for moving forward is typical of the present age, it is also a very old story.

06 November 2006

Monday Quote Frenzy - Nothing New Under the Sun

Had I unknown phrases
Sayings that are strange
Novel, untried words
Free of repetition
Not transmitted sayings
Spoken by the ancestors.
I wring out my body for what it holds,
Sifting through all my words;

For what has been said is just repetition,
What has been said has been said …

The Complaints of Khakheperre-seneb
(Middle Kingdom, 19th Century BCE)