19 May 2011

Unsystematic = Unmemorable?

Etienne Gilson, From The Spirit of Thomism (1964):
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a German philosopher by the name of Franz Brentano began to wonder how long the chain of the mutually destructive systems of philosophy was going to continue. Kant had just been replaced by Fichte, Fichte by Schelling, Schelling by Hegel, and Hegel by Schopenhauer. Hoping to bring the philosophical merry-go-round to a stop, Brentano suggested as a remedy a general return to the realism of the Greeks. This meant that for us as already for Aristotle, the method of philosophy should be the same as that of the science of nature, to wit, a rational interpretation of observed facts. The result of Brentano’s experiment is conclusive: himself a good psychologist, Brentano left no system to which his name could be attached, so that today he is practically forgotten.

I must confess that I know of no remedy to the difficulty. … Philosophy simply is not the kind of conceptual poetry they call a philosophical ‘system.’ Philosophy is wisdom, and wisdom is not poetry. Neither is it positive science, nor ethics, nor economics, nor politics. A true philosopher may well be neither a scientist nor a successful industrialist, nor a celebrated statesman. When asked to say what he knows, the true philosopher modestly answers with Socrates: nothing. And indeed his own function is not to know any particular kind of things; rather, it is to start from the cognitions gained by other men in the various and changing fields of knowledge and action; it is to clarify these cognitions, to criticize them and to order them by relating them to first causes. Like science, philosophy is about things, not cognitions, yet what is left of science, unless it thus unifies itself in the light of philosophical reflection, is but a heap of uncritical and disjointed pieces of information.

16 May 2011

Monday Quote Frenzy - Newman's Undergraduates

It is seldom remembered that, before his famous The Idea of a University, John Henry Newman wrote a novel. Entitled Loss and Gain, it was about the process by which an Oxford student comes to convert to the Roman Church - a subject of particular interest to Newman. Early on, he describes the state of the undergraduate, embedded in the blooming, buzzing confusion of the university.
When, then, men for the first time look upon the world of politics or religion, all that they find there meets their mind’s eye as a landscape addresses itself for the first time to a person who had just gained his bodily sight. One thing is as far off as another; there is no perspective. The connection of fact with fact, truth with truth, the bearing of fact upon truth, and truth upon fact, what leads to what, what are points primary and what secondary, – all this they have yet to learn. It is all a new science to them, and they do not even know their ignorance of it. Moreover, the world of to-day has no connection in their minds with the world of yesterday; time is not a stream, but stands before them round and full, like the moon. They do not know what happened ten years ago, much less the annals of a century; the past does not live to them in the present; they do not understand the worth of contested points; names have no associations for them, and persons kindle no recollections. They hear of men, and things, and projects, and struggles, and principles; but everything comes and goes like the wind, nothing makes an impression, nothing penetrates, nothing has its place in their minds. They locate nothing: they have no system. They hear and they forget; or they just recollect what they have once heard, they can’t tell where. Thus they have no consistency in their arguments; that is, they argue one way to-day, and not exactly the other way to-morrow, but indirectly the other way, at random. Their lines of argument diverge; nothing comes to a point; there is no one centre in which their minds sits [sic], on which their judgment of men and things proceeds. This is the state of many men all through life; and miserable politicians or Churchmen they make, unless by good luck they are in safe hands, and ruled by others, or are pledged to a course. Else they are at the mercy of the winds and waves; and, without being Radical, Whig, Tory, or Conservative, High Church or Low Church, they do Whig acts, Tory acts, Catholic acts, and heretical acts, as the fit takes them, or as events or parties drive them.

14 May 2011

The Original Private Photojournalism

The Jasmine Revolution has been sustained by photo and video documentation of protests and government attacks on same, thanks to the ubiquitous cell phone. It is interesting to recall when personal photojournalism began, though - at the end of the 19th century. The Kodak camera, first sold in 1888, is credited for the advent of amateur photography. The version with folding bellows appeared soon afterwards, and by 1897, there was a pocket-sized folding Kodak that could go anywhere.

One of its immediate impacts was on the international reaction to the atrocities carried out in the Congo by Leopold II of Belgium. That sad story is well documented in Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost, but I want to point out that some of the journalism of the time continues to resonate. In particular, Mark Twain's pamphlet, King Leopold's Soliloquy, speaks of the kind of press engagement - and disengagement - that we still see in modern atrocities of the human, economic, and environmental kinds. Twain reminds the reader that Leopold successfully 'bunco[ed] a Yankee' by convincing the US and President Hayes to be his primary supporter in acquiring the Congo territory. (Belgium had refused to take it on as an imperial acquisition, so Leopold established a holding company and, in the Berlin Conference of 1884-5, won the right to run it as his personal colony.)

When the condemnation of Leopold's bloody exploitation began, he suppressed the coverage by appealing to his American business partners: J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Daniel Guggenheim, and Thomas Fortune Ryan. He also hired American lobbyists, such as Henry I. Kowalsky. (The 'profession' of lobbyist had only recently undergone rapid development, thanks to the Reconstruction Era railroad expansion.) Accounts came out from missionaries and traders, but the newspapers treated them with suspicion.

And then came the Kodak. Twain, whose pamphlet is supposedly King Leopold himself reflecting on his situation, tells of its impact:
The kodak has been a sore calamity to us. The most powerful enemy indeed. In the early years we had no trouble in getting the press to ‘expose’ the tales of the mutilations as slanders, lies, inventions of busy-body American missionaries and exasperated foreigners who found the ‘open door’ of the Berlin-Congo charter closed against them when they innocently went out there to trade; and by the press’s help we got the Christian nations everywhere to turn an irritated and unbelieving ear to those tales and say hard things about the tellers of them. Yes, all things went harmoniously and pleasantly in those good days, and I was looked up to as the benefactor of a down-trodden and friendless people. Then all of a sudden came the crash! That is to say, the incorruptible Kodak – and all the harmony went to hell! The only witness I have encountered in my long experience that I couldn’t bribe. Every Yankee missionary and every interrupted trader sent home and got one; and now – oh, well, the pictures get sneaked around everywhere, in spite of all we can do to ferret them out and suppress them. Ten thousand pulpits and ten thousand presses are saying the good word for me all the time and placidly and convincingly denying the mutilations. Then that trivial little Kodak, that a child can carry in its pocket, gets up, uttering never a word, and knocks them dumb!

07 May 2011

Post-Bin-Ladin Reflection from Thucydides

In 424 BCE, Hermocrates son of Hermon, a Syracusan, spoke to the assembled Sicilian embassies at Gela, to discuss suing for peace with the Athenians, despite the fact that it was the Athenians who started the fight:
Let him remember that many before now have tried to chastise a wrongdoer, and failing to punish their enemy have not even saved themselves; while many who have trusted in force to gain an advantage, instead of gaining anything more, have been doomed to lose what they had. Vengeance is not necessarily successful because wrong has been done, or strength sure because it is confident; but the incalculable element in the future exercises the widest influence, and is the most treacherous, and yet in fact the most useful of all things as it frightens us all equally, and thus makes us consider before attacking each other.
This is from The Landmark Thucydides, edited by Robert B Strassler, Book 4, section 62.