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Charting Kant

October 20, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon for today's post.

Kant's Science of Right takes time to read. In the Science of Right, Kant explains the interaction of theory with practice when defining ownership, rights, and equity. I find it difficult to pull short sections from his writing because all of his arguments build upon one another. I also find it nearly impossible to study a single quote with the hopes of gaining a better understanding to his arguments because, again, the arguments are so inextricably linked. It's almost incestuous. However, I will do that very thing today while grappling with the idea of equity. I find it helpful to chart my understanding of Kant's arguments, so I have shared a few of my visual aids in hopes that they may enhance our understanding and conversation of his principles.

Merriam-Webster's first entry for equity is “justice according to natural law or right, specifically freedom from bias or favoritism”. Likewise, Kant's entire argument rests upon the idea of categorical imperatives, or a Kantian type of natural law (see figure 1), which makes this section fantastically interesting (and dense).

Figure 1

Figure 1

The following selection from the subheading of “6. Deduction of the Conception of a Purely Juridical Possession of an External Object (Possessio Noumenon)”, offers a glimpse of a very Kantian argument. He bases theory on the practical, which actually proves how practice is more theoretical than empirical. In other words, what we think of as concretely “mine” is actually an abstraction from one of Kant's categorical imperatives. He claims that categorical imperatives form the base of our societal structure, and in so doing, he explains how we function via free will. From that, I hope to gain an understanding of how abstraction functions and also what we might be able to gain from the idea of a temporary unification of two divergent wills.

Section 6 reads:

“It has been shown in the Critique of Pure Reason that in theoretical principles a priori, an institutional perception of a priori must be supplied in connection with any given conception; and, consequently, were it a question of a purely theoretical principle, something would have to be added to the conception of the possession of an object to make it real. But in respect of the practical principle under consideration, the procedure is just the converse of the theoretical process; so that all the conditions of perception which form the foundation of empirical possession must be abstracted or taken away in order to extend the range of the juridical conception beyond the empirical sphere, and in order to be able to apply the postulate, that every external object of the free activity of my will, so far as I have it in my power, although not in the possession of it, may be reckoned as juridically mine.

“The possibility of such a possession, which consequent deduction of the conception of a non-empirical possession, is founded upon the juridical postulate of the practical reason, that 'It is a juridical duty so to act towards others that what is external and useable may come into the possession or become the property of some one.' And this postulate is conjoined with the exposition of the conception that what is externally one's own is founded upon a possession, that is not physical. The possibility of such a possession, thus conceived, cannot however be proved or comprehended in itself, because it is a rational conception for which no empirical perception can be furnished; but it follows as an immediate consequence from the postulate that has been enunciated. For, if it is necessary to act according to that juridical principle, the rational or intelligible condition of a purely juridical possession must also be possible. It need astonish no one, then, that the theoretical aspect of the principles of the external mine and thine is lost from view in the rational sphere of pure intelligence and presents no extension of knowledge; for the conception of freedom upon which they rest does not admit of any theoretical deduction of its possibility, and it can only be inferred from the practical law of reason called the categorical imperative, viewed as a fact.”

Figure 2

Figure 2

The following ideas fascinate me the most. First, the inverse relationship between the theoretical and practical seems to counteract one another, but actually they reinforce each other. Kant uses the same process to found both arguments, but they create a labyrinthine inverse of the other (see figure 2). In other words, theory enables possession, but likewise, possession enables theory. Second, Kant states that these events happen independent of space and time, but also that they depend upon successive events. Therefore, there is a chronological structure to ownership, which instantaneously merges and then separates again. I wonder if, in some sense, the idea of time is what is "added" to the object in question?

Figure 3

Figure 3

Finally, figure 3 depicts the idea of ownership as a transfer in which two separate wills momentarily converge. This idea fascinates me - that two separate beings actually unite in a single point connected by an abstracted object mid-transfer, as if runners handing off a baton during a relay - seems so straightforward and logical. Only free will doesn't always act logically. This juridical assessment of transfer only makes me want to know what we can learn from a societal construct able to unify the wills of more than one human being. Kant demonstrates that each transaction involves a meeting of wills. In other words, two wills converge instantaneously in an agreement at which time an object changes ownership, according to the categorical imperative underlying transfer. And then they separate. Their relationship exists as a point on our chart for only one, small, already-disappearing instant.

What can we learn about individual or universal will from Kant's parabolic structures?

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Planets, Planets, Planets

October 13, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“The vastness of heavens stretches my imagination... Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?” - Richard Feynman

In 1609, Johannes Kepler published a few surprising details. First, he said, “the orbits of the planets are ellipses with the sun at one focus.” Then he added, “the time it takes a planet to travel from one position in its orbit to another is proportional to the area swept out by a planet in that time.” This comes almost 70 years after Copernicus corrected Aristotle's view of the heavens. Aristotle's versions were so widely accepted that Copernicus's assertion that placed the sun in the center of the universe upset many people. Kepler, too, shocked with his description of elliptical orbits around the sun. It was not until Newton arrived on the scene that these theories were put to scientific tests. In fact, Newton explained a lot about the celestial beings in his laws of motion. While Newton used calculus to support his scientific findings, he realized that he had to explain the motions in terms that other scientists in his day might understand. Therefore, he proved the motions of the planets using plane geometry. (“Just for fun”, Richard Feynman proved the same in his “lost lecture”, which can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mcD-5UfY1g0 )

Aristotle believed in natural final forms. In his book Meteorology, he explains his hierarchical system which includes: fire, air, water, earth. What may sound trivial to us is incredibly complicated, however. Aristotle observed a great number of events – some of them celestial – and attempted to explain them or their origins within his working framework. Yet even Aristotle understood that his categorization was incomplete. He admits the limits of scientific language in explaining his theories. He argues for a more scientific understanding of the processes on earth. He writes, “Some say that what is called air, when it is in motion and flows, is wind, and that this same air when it condenses again becomes cloud and water, implying that nature of wind and water is the same. So they define wind as a motion of the air. Hence some, wishing to say a clever thing, assert that all the winds are one wind, because the air that moves is in fact all of it one and the same; they maintain that the winds appear to differ owing to the region from which the air may happen to flow on each occasion, but really do not differ at all. This is just like thinking that all rivers are one and the same river, and the ordinary unscientific view is better than a scientific theory like this. If all rivers flow from one source, and the same is true in the case of the winds, there might be some truth in this theory; but if it is no more true in the one case than in the other, this ingenious idea is plainly false. What requires investigation is this: the nature of wind and how it originates, its efficient cause and whence they derive their source; whether one ought to think of the wind as issuing from a sort of vessel and flowing until the vessel is empty, as if let out of a wineskin, or, as painters represent the winds, as drawing their source from themselves.” Science often requires metaphor, and Aristotle certainly used this linguistic device. Drawing upon the idea of vessels being filled or emptied or the idea of a wineskin helps others understand his theory. It also helps to explain when there is no language for explanation. At times he writes of “stuff” or ambiguous “forms” and explains that we must use this terminology because it is what we have to use.

Creating a language for something new requires thought and metaphor. Proper nouns often rely upon metaphor or story. This is especially true of celestial beings. When Uranus was discovered in 1781, there was no standard of naming. It wasn't until 1850 that Uranus was officially accepted and a process for naming celestial beings was established. The International Astronomical Union (IAU), founded in 1919, now controls all names. Assuming that all planets within our solar system have been identified, they deal mostly with moons, surface features, asteroids, and comets.

Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn have been recognized in the heavens throughout history. The next three planets were identified as technology advanced. First Uranus in 1781, then Neptune in 1846 and, if you want to include it, Pluto in 1930. Early cultures identified the movement of the planets with the movement of mythological beings. For this reason, Romans named Venus after the goddess of love, who would surely be epitomized by the brightest and most beautiful celestial being. Mars, of course, the god of War, takes on a reddish appearance, and Mercury whose orbit is so short, moves swiftly on winged feet. Merriam-Webster tells us that Earth, ironically, comes from the Indo-European base 'er,'which produced the Germanic noun 'ertho,' and ultimately German 'erde,' Dutch 'aarde,' Scandinavian 'jord,' and English 'earth.' Related forms include Greek 'eraze,' meaning 'on the ground,' and Welsh 'erw,' meaning 'a piece of land.' Jupiter, the largest and most massive of the planets was named Zeus by the Greeks and Jupiter by the Romans. This name depends entirely upon size because he was the most important deity in both pantheons. Saturn (Cronos in Greek) was the father of Zeus/Jupiter. Since it is visible by the naked eye, Saturn has a variety of names from other cultures as well. (Find a wonderful list of names gathered from many cultures here: http://nineplanets.org/days.html ). Uranus was first seen in 1781 as noted above, named for the father of Cronos/Saturn. Neptune followed in 1846 and is named for the Roman god of the sea. Pluto is named after the Roman god of the underworld. The name especially fits this body because Pluto can make himself invisible at will, as does Pluto in its orbit.

As science continues to push to exoplanets and quantum physics, language will continue to evolve. As technology jumps from email to iPhones to cloud computing, we continue to see metaphors emerge and converge, proving that language must evolve simultaneously with culture.

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On Tinkers

October 6, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Myth is what happens to a strong belief once the belief has changed. In other words, what was once firm belief, turns into cultural story and entertainment. They become important narratives, but not necessarily belief systems. For example, we know who Zeus is, but I doubt that anyone believes the story of Leda and the Swan. (I say that with some hesitation because one could argue that the story is really about transformation, and that that particular myth represents the idea of change. I do concede that change is indisputable.) My point is, rather, that at one time, a society upheld Zeus as a supreme being and now we anthologize those representations into myth as opposed to religious texts. These stories often address the uncertainty of change or new beginnings. They analogize situations for which we have no data and no real coherent answer. They often come from ancient societies, but in today's blog I want to take a peek at a recent novel which, I argue, demonstrates the way that history sometimes feels mythic.

Recently I read the contemporary novel, Tinkers by Paul Harding. I felt that the novel ably demonstrated this idea of transformation from the almost-impossible (or unspeakable) into the mundane. By weaving fictional texts in and out of his story, Harding creates the mythic beginnings of a family. Through a poetic, winding style, the reader must piece together the family history. The men in this family all carry one trait, that of epilepsy. In the beginning, societal fears surrounding epilepsy in conjunction with the other-worldly experience of a seizure, defines the men. The omniscient narration style allows for historical notions to fluidly enter the stream of consciousness of one who experiences an episode. Therefore, through three subsequent generations, we better understand the historical time period as well as the individual characters.

In the first generation, the father is sent to an insane asylum (which was the only 'treatment' for epilepsy at this time). In the next generation, the insane asylum option exists, but the father abandons his family before being committed. Instead, he turns to a mundane city life in which he bags groceries and remarries. In this new life, he is valued and treated as normal. It is as though he has gone through a transformation from mythic beginnings to mundane humanity. Once the men remove long-held beliefs (placed upon them by society or reputation), they achieve the power to direct their own lives. They have stepped outside of the long-held belief which previously devalued their lives. Instead, the reader hopes that future generations will go on to live a life which achieves some level of happiness, despite disability.

The passage below exemplifies these mythic beginnings. In this section, a son watches a father fish for an apple. Whether he is actually watching this scene is less important than trying to see how the son understands his father. He literally imagines (or sees) his father's disintegration. The narrator does an excellent job of describing this ethereal being return to what must be the stuff of all beginnings.

“Another time I found him fumbling for an apple in the barrel we kept in the basement. I could just make him out in the gloom. Each time he tried to grab a piece of fruit, it eluded him, or I might say he eluded it, as his grasp was no stronger than a draft of air threading through a crack in the window. He succeeded once, after appearing to concentrate for a moment, in upsetting an apple from its place at the top of the pile, but it merely tumbled down along the backs of other apples and came to rest against the mouth of the barrel. It seemed to me that even if I could pick an apple up with my failing hands, how could I bite it with my dissipating teeth, digest it with my ethereal gut? I realized that this thought was not my own but, rather, my father's, that even his ideas were leaking out of his former self. Hands, teeth, gut, thoughts even, were all simply more or less convenient to human circumstance, and as my father was receding from human circumstance, so, too, were all of these particulars, back to some unknowable froth where they might be reassigned to be stars or belt buckles, or lunar dust or railroad spikes. Perhaps they already were all of these things and my father's fading was because he realized this: My goodness, I am made from planets and wood, diamonds and orange peels, now and then, here and there; the iron in my blood was once the blade of a Roman plow; peel back my scalp and you will see my cranium covered in the scrimshaw carved by an ancient sailor who never suspected that he was whittling at my skull – no, my blood is a Roman plow, my bones are being etched by men with names that mean sea wrestler and ocean rider and the pictures they are making are pictures of northern stars at different seasons, and the man keeping my blood straight as it splits the soil is named Lucian and he will plant wheat, and I cannot concentrate on this apple, this apple, and the only thing common to all of this is that I feel sorrow so deep, it must be love, and they are upset because while they are carving and plowing they are troubled by visions of trying to pick apples from barrels. I looked away and ran back upstairs, skipping the ones that creaked, so that I would not embarrass my father, who had not quite yet turned back from clay into light.”

Many thanks to the conversation group which opened up this incredibly poetic text to me!

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Do We Need Heroes

September 29, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“I think many of the stories that we tell ourselves as a society - the stories that encode our hopes, aspirations, and fears - preserve the traces of classical culture and myth and are part of our classical legacy.” - Professor Elizabeth Vandiver

Our modern day understanding of the term hero is mostly positive. We think of heroes as protectors and helpers with outstanding qualities that make them better than the average human. However, ancient Greeks thought of heroes as mostly larger than life figures with extraordinary powers. Though they relied upon their heroes to be great, they did not necessarily imbue them with morals in the same way that we would today. Having said that, in today's blog, I want to look at some questions surrounding Oedipus and then move forward a few thousand years to better understand why Dave Chappelle names Bill Cosby as one of his childhood heroes. I realize the gigantic leap that I am taking, but I wonder if the questions asked by Sophocles are similar to questions that we may ask about modern-day “heroes”.

Oedipus was born to Jocasta and Laius of Thebes. Unfortunately, before his birth, Tiresias prophesied that Oedipus would kill his father. Eventually, Jocasta and Laius decide to leave the infant out in the elements. He is, of course, miraculously rescued and raised in Corinth. His adoptive parents for some reason never tell him that he is adopted, however. So, when Oedipus receives the oracle that he will kill his father and marry his mother, he chooses to leave Corinth. (This point often perplexes me. I want to know why, first of all, his adoptive parents haven't fessed up about the adoption part, and, second, why doesn't he simply choose not to kill or not to marry. I think that is my modern sensibilities providing options which may have been absurd to an ancient society.) Either way, Oedipus travels to Thebes and has the luck of being the only one able to answer the Sphinx's riddle. This, in turn, removes the Sphinx who has been tormenting the city and they all rejoice. Unfortunately, Oedipus unwittingly fulfills his prophecy and upon realization of the oracle's truth, he blinds himself. In other words, Sophocles proposes that Oedipus was irreversibly fated or destined to this path, regardless of his prior heroics and reason.

Sophocles wrote this play around 430 BC and yet we still discuss it today. Freud perhaps boosted its fame when he named the Oedipus Complex: a psychoanalytic theory which posits sexual tensions between parent and child, thus creating a sense of rivalry in the parent of the same sex. Many other theorists and literary scholars have discussed Sophocles's play and named a variety of reasons for its longstanding interest. I wonder, however, if it has something to do with the fact that humans are complex. There is no single answer and any answer is met with a number of inconsistencies. But this, to me, seems very human. The author's creation of a hero is always artificial. No single being can live up to the idea of perfection, or be everything to everyone. I often see this with contemporary celebrities or sports stars. We put them on a pedestal which is completely artificial.

Therefore, I am curious about the construction of hero in a modern-day context. Dave Chappelle recently mentioned that Bill Cosby was one of his childhood heroes in his recent stand-up The Age of Spin. Chappelle says, “Let's not forget, I've never met Bill Cosby, so I'm not defending him. But let's just remember that he has a valuable legacy that I can't just throw away. I remember that he's the first black man to win an Emmy in television. I also remember that he's the first guy to make a black cartoon with black characters where their lips and noses were drawn proportionally. I remember that he had a television show that got numbers equivalent to the Super Bowl every Thursday night. And I remember that he partnered up with a clinical psychologist to make sure that there was not one negative image of African Americans on his show. I'm telling you that's no small thing. I've had a television show...I wouldn't have done that shit. He gave tens of millions of dollars to African American institutions of higher learning and is directly responsible for thousands of black kids going to college...not just the ones he raped. Here comes the kicker, you ready? Here's the fact that I heard but haven't confirmed. I heard that when Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and said he had a dream, he was speaking into a PA system that Bill Cosby paid for. Do you understand what I'm saying?” Chappelle's point is important because while Cosby was a prominent (and mostly positive) voice for African American people and civil rights, he was also allegedly committing heinous acts. It is impossible to square the two Cosby personalities, rapist with African American rights leader. My point is that people are complicated. I do not understand why we continue to think that someone who is really good at something must be really good at everything – morals included. There isn't any sense to be made from it, there isn't any rational approach. It is simply complicated. I also think that public pressure changes a being. Is there a sense that greatness changes into entitlement? If someone has been dubbed a hero because of one success, does that change their internal landscape? Have we, the public, unwittingly nurtured the development?

I know that my oversimplified views have no sound basis in psychology or analysis. But it seems that humans repeatedly desire the artificial and happy ending. I am wondering if this is something that we are hard-wired for, or if it is something that literature tells us is possible? I wonder if we can edit the ending, or end the story wherever we want to? For example, can we stop reading after Oedipus kills the Sphinx? Think of the happy and newly freed citizens of Thebes who invite a triumphant and glowing Oedipus into town. And yet, this too is unsatisfactory in that it cheats the true story. Sophocles knew this, and so he began the play after Oedipus and Jocasta are already married. There is already an element of fate, of tragedy. Should we, then, consider every hero as if (s)he were on the precipice of a fall? If we continue in our current understanding of hero, which Merriam-Webster lists as “a person admired for achievements and noble qualities”, then our expectations will never be met. It is as if we set ourselves up for failure, not just our heroes. As far as I know, there is not a single, defined and agreed upon list of noble qualities, though there are certainly reprehensible ones.

To put it plainly, I wonder if our definition and/or treatment of heroes needs to be redefined.

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