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Imagination in Flight

November 16, 2018

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

In Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin has her protagonist, Genly Ai, travel to the distant planet Gethen which has no birds or flying insects. As a result, the communities there never even thought to attempt flight and their language has no word for flying. It is no wonder, then, that the people mistrust Genly who arrives by airship. It is also easy to see why Le Guin chose this scenario. She masterfully removes something which we often take for granted (that there are flying animals and insects) and then demonstrates how it impacts imagination. (For the record, there are many other major differences between our earthly world and Gethen, but I’m only talking flight today. I definitely recommend the book for all of those who are curious about science fiction experiments.) In chapter thirteen, Genly Ai and another man are sharing folktales about the places where they are from. Genly shares the story of flight. He remarks that he is not talking about a spirit world, but the real world. He says, “’Not by flapping their arms, you know. They flew in machines like cars.’ But it was hard to say in Orgota, which lacks a word meaning precisely ‘to fly’; the closest one can come has more the meaning of ‘glide.’ ‘Well, they learned how to make machines that went right over the air as a sledge goes over the snow.’” Of course, in order to communicate, language restricts Genly Ai to analogies of the place where he is, so he focuses on a common machine from this icy climate, the sled.

 Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

The history of flight is extremely curious and inspiring. The history of aviation includes such fascinating, bold, strong personalities as Emilia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, the Wright brothers and many, many others. However, I was caught by surprise recently when I discovered how little I know about lighter-than-air ships. In reading Ships of the Air by Lyn Curlee, I saw again that same spark of curiosity that often drives human invention. Curlee writes, “One day, after watching ashes from a fire float upward, Joseph Montgolfier folded a piece of paper, held it above a fire, then watched it fly up the chimney. Joseph believed that the smoky fire created some kind of gas that was lighter than air. Only later did he and Étienne understand that hot air rises. But Joseph did understand that if a big enough bag could be filled with hot ‘gas,’ the bag would rise off the ground – and could carry a person with it.” From there begins a wonderful, rich, global history layered with politics and science. After Montgolfier demonstrated a hot air balloon flight to Marie Antoinette, the world took note. Furthermore, his balloon contained a flight crew of a sheep, rooster, and duck, whose survival proved that the atmosphere was higher than previously imagined. Many people became interested in designing and flying airships. In the late 1800s, they became popular sights in France, London and Germany. And as war broke out, the zeppelin famously became a machine of war, rather than leisure.

Back when the Montgolfier brothers were experimenting with cloth and paper balloons, however, there were many misconceptions regarding flight. Curlee writes that in 1766, “Professor Charles’s balloon floated 15 miles into the countryside, landing near a small village. The villagers, who thought the balloon was a monster, destroyed it with pitchforks.” This mentality echoes what Le Guin describes on her science fiction world, Gethen. It took an incredible amount of imagination to believe in flight. Furthermore, imagination is, in part, problem-solving. For the story of airships to become any kind of success indicates that man must often think outside the box. I return to Joseph Montgolfier watching ashes rise. With possibility comes the calculated risk of burning the paper. Understandably, then, the airship has faced many problems, such as weather, flammability, size versus weight ratios, etc. Curlee continues, “The story of lighter-than-air travel is mainly the story of failures. People who designed airships made many mistakes – often because they were experimenting with new technology, sometimes because they were careless.” Even so, hot-air balloons still inspire our imaginations. They predate airplanes, have been created by humans all over the globe, and have been put to many uses (including a German mail service). One thing is clear, flight of any kind captivates humans. The ability to defy gravity, even for an instant, sparks the imagination.

 Darth Vader at the Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Darth Vader at the Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

These photographs were taken at the Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Every October, over five hundred balloonists visit Albuquerque for its unique landscape and wind patterns. Balloons feature colorful designs, brand names, and cultural icons (Darth Vader is often a big hit). To see five hundred balloons floating up in the sunrise certainly inspires the imagination!

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Discussing de Tocqueville

November 2, 2018

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

For the October Quarterly Discussion, we read four chapters from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. As usual, I distributed some questions beforehand intended to help start the conversation. Each discussion lasts 1.5 hours in which I (mostly) lead. I enjoy the responsibility of organizing these discussions because I get to begin with the questions that I have about a specific text. Due to the fact that so much of de Tocqueville’s writings resonate with me, I really struggled to refrain from participating too. His writings also speak to current politics, and therefore, it was doubly hard to avoid participation. I have to thank the participants in Harrison Middleton University’s October Quarterly Discussion who did an admirable job of sticking to the subject.

We began with the formation of political parties in general. He writes, “But when the citizens entertain different opinions upon subjects which affect the whole country alike, such, for instance, as the principles upon which the government is to be conducted, then distinctions arise that may correctly be styled parties. Parties are a necessary evil in free governments; but they have not at all times the same character and the same propensities” (88-9). So, while he finds parties to be a necessary evil, he also does not find them equal in character. From there, we tried to understand de Tocqueville’s delineation between “great” and “small” parties. Despite the way that it sounds, these two types of parties have nothing to do with size. Rather, in de Tocqueville’s mind, the great parties are those that discuss issues and have, what he calls, a “more noble” pursuit. On the other hand, small parties form around an issue or two. The small parties, according to de Tocqueville, care more about a single issue or a private interest than about ideas or the good of society, whereas great parties are concerned with principles and their general application. In 1830, he writes, “America has had great parties, but has them no longer; and if her happiness is thereby considerably increased, her morality has suffered” (89B). According to de Tocqueville, the great parties arose out of necessity and strife, a time when America was suffering. These parties looked at broad issues that would impact all of America. The focus, therefore, was more holistic. However, once these changes were implemented and the need for social cohesion lessoned, special interests overtook the general cohesion of the great parties and replaced them. De Tocqueville describes the effects of the small parties as those which “agitate” society rather than revolutionize it.

Furthermore, de Tocqueville’s use of happiness and morality is of great interest. In this section, he seems to define happiness as a level of individual comfort and perhaps peace. It appears that his version of happiness in America is one which leads to a sort of immorality. He suggests that the more comfortable we are, the more self-involved we are and therefore, less moral. In other words, morality may demand an ethic that lessens our ease of living. In the future, I would like to further investigate de Tocqueville’s idea of happiness by moving outside of this single chapter. I am curious how happiness (in his terms) aligns with morality throughout the text. Furthermore, I wonder how different translators have dealt with this idea. Is happiness the most appropriate word choice for the original French? How have others translated this section? (The Great Books version was translated by George Lawrence.)

From there, we moved into the chapter on Freedom of the Press. De Tocqueville begins this chapter by stating that he has reservations about a free press. He writes, “I confess that I do not entertain that firm and complete attachment to the liberty of the press which is wont to be excited by things that are supremely good in their very nature. I approve of it from a consideration more of the evils it prevents than of the advantages it ensures” (92A). First, he finds that a free press is invaluable to a democracy because information distribution would be limited by a single entity. On the other hand, freedom implies that nearly anyone can create news if they choose to do so. In the first case, news is singular and perhaps biased or incomplete. In the latter, news may lack data, information, facts and anything pertaining to reality. Furthermore, he writes, “[T]he hallmark of the American journalist is a direct and coarse attack, without any subtleties, on the passions of his readers; he disregards principles to seize on people, following them into their private lives and laying bare their weaknesses and their vices. That is a deplorable abuse of the powers of thought” (95A). He continues that, despite the abuse of thought, each individual newspaper carries little weight, which makes many small voices. This cacophony creates the “spirit” of the press. The multitude of voices also ironically removes the danger of a single voice reaching the level of despotism.

These chapters address very complex issues inherent in America’s being. They are worth more than 1.5 hours of discussion. Rather, de Tocqueville addresses so many contemporary issues that the entire volume is worth (re)reading. Additionally, discussing a work like this one is vital to understanding the depth of democracy’s issues. Democracy in America explains some of the foundations of our country in a way that is both poetic and holistic. My gratitude goes to those who spent time in discussion with me. I look forward to our next conversation!

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Language Games

October 12, 2018

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

Communication is awfully complicated. How does anyone know, for certain, when they are communicating? For meaning to occur, two parties must have some knowledge in common. Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote many pages about the way that language is structured. Today, I want to investigate his idea of the language game and then apply it to Heidegger’s idea of Being.

According to Wittgenstein, the language game begins with, but does not include, names. He refers to the action of naming as “preparation for description” (329B). That a name for something exists only means that we have a shell of reference. So, I can mention a cat, which will give you a categorical reference devoid of specifics. Once we have assembled some names, we begin a discussion by adding descriptors. Wittgenstein likens this to a chess board. Names are the pieces that we can move around the board, but they are not the game itself. Now that we have these categories, we can begin to communicate about them, describe them, fill them in, move them. Wittgenstein writes, “[A] great deal of stage-setting in the language is presupposed if the mere act of naming is to make sense. And when we speak of someone’s having given a name to pain, what is presupposed is the existence of the grammar of the word ‘pain’’ it shews the post where the new word is stationed” (Philosophical Investigation #257). So, the language game takes concepts and places them within a structure.

The knowledge of concepts, however, is of crucial importance. Wittgenstein continually warns the reader that meaning is not a given. In example after example, Wittgenstein describes how difficult it actually is to make meaning. He writes, “[I]t is difficult to see that what is at issue is the fixing of concepts…. A concept forces itself onto one” (425B). What he intends here, I believe, is that the concept itself has been defined by culture, society, norms, etc. In the chess analogy, the knight’s movement has been defined for you. You can only move it in an ‘L’ shape according to the rules of the game. Say, for example, that your language game intends to discuss the idea of a cat, “cat” will already have an agreed-upon definition. This concept, however, is fixed only in terms of this specific game. Once you exit the game, cat may contain more or less meanings, more or less descriptions. Meaning, then, depends upon the group involved in a single discussion as well as the terminology that the discussion utilizes.

Furthermore, Wittgenstein discusses anomalies, such as mistakes, calculations, guesses, hypotheses, etc. Upon what foundation do we make a mistake? Is it fair to call a lion a cat? Though it fits the category, it may not actually represent the idea or concept driving the speech-act. For instance, if I make the statement: “The cat is cute,” in what sense would lion make sense and in what sense would it not?

Now that we have a basic idea of the language game, we can move from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations into Heidegger’s “What is Metaphysics?” Near the end of this piece, Heidegger claims:

“Obedient to the voice of Being, thought seeks the Word through which the truth of Being may be expressed. Only when the language of historical man is born of the Word does it ring true. But if it does ring true, then the testimony of the soundless voice of hidden springs lures it ever on. The thought of Being guards the Word and fulfils its function in such guardianship, namely care for the use of language. Out of long-guarded speechlessness and the careful clarification of the field thus cleared, comes the utterance of the thinker. Of like origin is the naming of the poet. But since like is only like insofar as difference allows, and since poetry and thinking are most purely alike in their care of the word, the two things are at the same time at opposite poles in their essence. The thinker utters Being. The poet names what is holy.” (310B)

This passage strikes me as thought-provoking (and complicated) for many reasons. Heidegger mentions a cleared field, which is an important aspect behind his idea of essential Being and Word. This field is, in fact, a Nothing through which we come to understand Being itself. If we think of the cleared field as a field of possibility, we are able to project our Being into it. And then, Being(s) exist because we do. According to Heidegger, this constant process of understanding the world through a removal of everything is the first step in thinking. Heidegger writes, “Being is not a product of thinking. It is more likely that essential thinking is an occurrence of Being” (309A). In other words, once the field is cleared, a Being can focus on a field which allows for contemplation of a thing or things, but not everything simultaneously. He asks that we focus on the Word, meaning a specific idea devoid of self and other baggage. From there, we will find thought.

The final line of his long quote above mentions the difference between a poet and a philosopher. Basically, according to Heidegger, they both work toward the same goal. However, the poet stands at one end of this spectrum while the philosopher at the other. The difference arises in the mode of expression. So, the philosopher seeks a discursive, direct expression of thought, whereas the poet seeks truth through metaphor. In other words, the poet attempts to fully remove Being itself, and focus on the thought, focus on embodiment of the other. In this way, the poet arrives at a similar, but different, idea of the moon (for example), or whatever body you would like. For this reason, Heidegger claims that the philosopher arrives at an understanding of Being, whereas the poet finds what is holy.

Much remains unpacked in this short commentary on Wittgenstein and Heidegger. However, we have arrived at an idea of Being as represented by Heidegger’s very specific terminology. Heidegger is known for co-opting or creating words and phrases for his own purpose, devoid of their everyday meaning. In some cases, these phrases are untranslatable (as we find in the passages regarding Da Sien). That does not mean, however, that nothing can be gained. In fact, I hope this short experiment has granted some window of insight into a discussion of language itself.

*All citations are from the Great Books Anthology number 55, 20th Century Philosophy and Religion, 1990.


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Tocqueville's Abstract Language

July 20, 2018

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

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville warns that abstract language is like “a box with a false bottom; you may put in what ideas you please and take them out again unobserved” (258). Since I often study poetry and think about how metaphor affects us on every level, from personal and familial to political and global, I wanted to unpack this idea of Tocqueville’s. What is the warning and to whom is it directed? This quote comes from Volume II, Part I in which Tocqueville deals with the “Influence of Democracy on the Intellectual Movements in the United States”. The first chapters of this Volume discuss theater, art, and poetry as they intersect with taste, style, culture, politics and education. He continues, “The abundance of abstract terms in the language of democracy, used the whole time without reference to any particular facts, both widens the scope of thought and clouds it.” (258) I find it ironic that in describing a frustration with the opacity of language, Tocqueville resorts to the metaphor of clouds. Clearly, some situations warrant metaphor while in others, metaphor detracts from meaning.

Since Tocqueville often discusses equality throughout Democracy in America, he uses that term as an example of what he means by abstract language. He writes, “I have often used the word ‘equality’ in an absolute sense, and several times have even personified it, so that I have found myself saying that equality did certain things or abstained from others. Frenchmen in the reign of Louis XIV would never have spoken in that way; it would never have entered the head of any of them to use the word ‘equality’ without applying it to some particular thing, and they would have preferred not to use the word at all rather than turn it into a living being.” (258) In other words, “equality” models the way that language changes. Tocqueville attempts, throughout a number of chapters, to elucidate this term, but he never clearly defines equality. Previous generations could not have done this and still made sense. So, it seems that over time some terms gather enough general meaning as to no longer require specific identifiers. Is this a good or bad thing for language? Does it “cloud” language?

The answer is, of course, not as simple as we would like. According to Tocqueville himself, clouded language is a negative. Yet, he continues to use a poorly defined term such as equality for a large part of his argument. It is only on page 258 (out of 383) that he explains how difficult it is to define abstract language. And yet, his treatise delivers impressive insight about equality itself, which leads me to believe that abstract language, when handled appropriately, can be made useful. Therefore, I would argue that the danger inherent in language is also a part of its strength. More specifically, the ability for a term to stretch, encompass, change and grow can be both a positive or a negative dependent upon its usage. I love that idea, but to be honest, that leaves the audience with a lot of work to do.

In the chapter on “Language” from the Syntopicon, Adler states that “[t]he ideal of a perfect and universal language seems to arise in modern times from dissatisfaction with the inadequacy of ordinary language for the analytic refinement and precision of mathematics or science.” (728B) I can see both sides of this argument. While I agree that we struggle to find language adequate and fitting for quickly evolving technologies, I do not believe that most of our contemporary problems stem from this issue. Rather, more in tune with Tocqueville’s example, words accrue meanings which render them somewhat useless. I like to use the example of green: what began as a color now refers to anything from good gardening skills to novices and environmentalists. The danger that Tocqueville warns of, however, is more appropriately constrained to terms like “equality” which make an impressive sound-bite, but convey little meaning. In other words, metaphor is not the problem, per se, but rather its overuse.

Reading the chapter on “Language” makes me wonder how well we understand types of language. Where is the divide between poetic language, everyday speech, political rhetoric, and workplace memorandums, for example? What, precisely, constitutes clear language in each of these scenarios? It seems obvious that unclear terms damage important conversations, but the parameters of useful language are less clear. For example, when Shakespeare has Mark Antony claim that “they spaniel’d me at my heels,” he certainly does not literally mean dogs. Rather the opposing ships pursued him as hunting dogs pursue their prey. The metaphor surprises the reader by condensing image and action. The use of a noun in the place of a verb helps the audience feel Antony’s fear, surprise and frustration. Shakespeare is masterful at such speech, and perhaps set the tone for much poetic writing. (For more in this vein, listen to Seth Lerer’s Great Course on the History of English Language.) And while this term works well in Shakespeare’s play, what happens when we rely upon metaphor for everything? In my view, the ways in which we define and use language are of tantamount importance and deserve just a little bit more care.

To encapsulate my point, Adler writes:

“Without judging the fundamental issues involved concerning the nature of things and of man and his mind, one point seems to be clear. According as men hold different conceptions of the relation of language to thought (and in consequence assume different attitudes toward the imperfections or misuse of language), they inevitably take opposite sides on these issues. Whether the discipline of language is called semantics or the liberal arts, the standards by which one man criticizes the language of another seem to depend upon what he holds to be true.

“The present work on the great ideas aims, in part, to record the agreements and disagreements among the great minds of the western tradition. It also records how those minds have used the same word in different senses or have used quite distinct words for the same thing. It could not do either unless it did both. This indicates the basic relationship between language and thought which the great books exemplify, even when they do not explicitly make it the basis of their discussion of the relation between language and thought.” (728)

If you are interested in politics, rhetoric, man, nature, culture, or scripture, it might be worth spending a few moments with “Language.”

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