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Bergson and Our Quarterly Discussion

July 19, 2019

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

In Creative Evolution, Henri Bergson uses natural science as the basis for his arguments towards a new understanding of reality. This July, a group of us discussed two sections from Creative Evolution in order to better understand Bergson’s philosophical ideas. In this work, Bergson explains that two popular views of reality cannot fully account for the way that the world presents itself. He uses examples such as the formation of an eye to underscore the ways in which mechanism and finalism fall short. Bergson opposes the idea that the eye was constructed piece by piece like a machine (the mechanist theory). He also disagrees with the idea that the human eye evolved with an end goal in mind (like 20/20 vision, for example), which is the view of finalists. To illustrate these arguments, he writes:

“For us, the whole of an organized machine may, strictly speaking, represent the whole of the organizing work (this is, however, only approximately true), yet the parts of the machine do not correspond to parts of the work, because the materiality of this machine does not represent a sum of means employed, but a sum of obstacles avoided: it is a negation rather than a positive reality. So, as we have shown in a former study, vision is a power which should attain by right an infinity of things inaccessible to our eyes. But such a vision would not be continued into action; it might suit a phantom, but not a living being. The vision of a living being is an effective vision, limited to objects on which the being can act: it is a vision that is canalized, and the visual apparatus simply symbolizes the work of canalizing. Therefore the creation of the visual apparatus is no more explained by the assembling of its anatomic elements than the digging of a canal could be explained by the heaping up of the earth which might have formed its banks. A mechanistic theory would maintain that the earth had been brought cart-load by cart-load; finalism would add that it had not been dumped down at random, that the carters had followed a plan. But both theories would be mistaken, for the canal has been made in another way” (93-94).

His next example introduces Bergson’s new theory (one which he would discuss for the rest of his life). He talks about the negative as defining reality, rather than the positive. Instead of positively adding elements in the way that we build a car, for example, Bergson advocates that duration and free will simultaneously influences evolution. Therefore, he offers an example of a hand moving through iron filings as a demonstration of duration and free will. The path of the hand through the filings is a matter of choice against or in its environment. He continues:

“With greater precision, we may compare the process by which nature constructs an eye to the simple act by which we raise the hand. But we supposed at first that the hand met with no resistance. Let us now imagine that, instead of moving in air, the hand has to pass through iron filings which are compressed and offer resistance to it in proportion as it goes forward. At a certain moment the hand will have exhausted its effort, and, at this very moment, the filings will be massed and coördinated in a certain definite form, to wit, that of the hand that is stopped and of a part of the arm. Now, suppose that the hand and arm are invisible. Lookers-on will seek the reason of the arrangement in the filings themselves and in forces within the mass. Some will account for the position of each filing by the action exerted upon it by the neighboring filings: these are the mechanists. Others will prefer to think that a plan of the whole has presided over the detail of these elementary actions: they are the finalists. But the truth is that there has been merely one indivisible act, that of the hand passing through the filings: the inexhaustible detail of the movement of the grains, as well as the order of their final arrangement, expresses negatively, in a way, this undivided movement, being the unitary form of a resistance, and not a synthesis of positive elementary actions. For this reason, if the arrangement of the grains is termed an "effect" and the movement of the hand a "cause," it may indeed be said that the whole of the effect is explained by the whole of the cause, but to parts of the cause parts of the effect will in no wise correspond. In other words, neither mechanism nor finalism will here be in place, and we must resort to an explanation of a different kind. Now, in the hypothesis we propose, the relation of vision to the visual apparatus would be very nearly that of the hand to the iron filings that follow, canalize and limit its motion” (94-95).

Bergson explains the resulting path as a kind of “equilibrium,” a circumstance as a result of the environment, the need, the organ, etc. He claims that beings evolve, but not according to any design. While I believe that Bergson asks us to think of this third idea in tandem with mechanism and finalism, in that they are complementary ideas aimed at better understanding reality, he does seem to say that his theory is the more developed. During our discussion, someone noted that while his theory may be more holistic, it still does not clearly address the initial impetus. Using evolution as the starting point for his theory, Bergson defines the original impetus as the “passing from one generation of germs to the following generation of germs through the developed organisms which bridge the interval between the generations” (88). He does not directly address the idea of prime movers, or from where original impetus stems.

In this short section, Bergson devotes much time to the complexity of the eye, which he claims shows a specificity of purpose. It is this simple purpose which has created the path for the evolution of the eye. In other words, vision becomes a standalone purpose which drives the creation of the eye. The eye develops freely (without end goal) because the environment places demands upon it. That beings have sight seems to be a commonality among most species. Freedom of choice, then, allows the eye to develop to environmental demands in a way that allows hawks to see at a distance and humans to read texts. He also notes that these things are always in motion, always in duration, and that the current development is in no way the final development.

Published in 1911, Creative Evolution is an intriguing entrance into Bergson’s writings. His subsequent writings, such as The Creative Mind, develop many of the ideas introduced in this text and offer excellent discussions. Due to the fact that Bergson is also responding to philosophical questions which have existed for thousands of years, we must look more closely at the translators’ language. Many of his works were not translated until the 1980s and 1990s, which raises the question of translation accuracy in a field which requires such specificity.

Many thanks to those who were able to participate in Harrison Middleton University’s July Quarterly Discussion. As always, I gain great benefit from hearing the ideas of others!

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I Don't Know

June 7, 2019

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

I taught high school fresh out of college. I was so young that people often thought I was a student (which is perhaps also why I was so nervous about being the one in front). Suddenly, after years of watching someone else do all the lecturing, I was in charge of a classroom. To say I was intimidated is putting it lightly. In fact, I felt many emotions – excitement, anxiety, challenge, fear, etc. Up to that point, my educational model consisted of listening to lectures and doing group projects. I understand the reasons for (and benefits of) a lecture-style classroom, however, having been with Harrison Middleton University for awhile now, I also recognize its limitations.

My wonderful job enables me to discuss a wide variety of literature in small groups. Furthermore, technology allows us to do this with people around the world. No longer am I a lecturer at the front of a classroom. This experience has opened my eyes to some of my own flaws during my high school teaching experience. While I incorporated drama as often as possible into the high school curriculum, I did not utilize discussion nearly enough.

Leading discussions can be extremely intimidating for a number of reasons. First, and most obvious, though the leader directs the flow, there is no ability to control all of the comments. Sometimes conversations enter a place that is off-topic or offensive, and the leader must reign those in. Sometimes conversations seem flat, boring, uninspired, or lacking in participation. Sometimes the students have not adequately read the material, and the leader must carry the conversation or the group must read passages out loud together and discuss it that way.

Also, the leader must do a lot of prep work ahead of time. First, the leader must prepare questions ahead of time and know the reading quite thoroughly. Second, the leader must lay down ground rules from the beginning, such as focusing all comments on the relevant text. Third, the leader must feel empowered to cut someone short, ask that the conversation return to the focus work. Typically the leader does not participate in the discussion, but often people will ask questions that have no answer. The leader, therefore, must feel comfortable with the limits of their knowledge.

As a high school teacher, I did not have any of these resources yet. I always felt ashamed when I did not know the answer immediately. Now, however, I find that saying “I don’t know” is exciting. Now I see it as an opportunity to discover something, even if it is just a factual review of the text. Personally, I get excited when we reach a spot where I do not know something because it is an opportunity to learn.

During a conversation in which I am the leader, I like to prepare clusters of questions. I often find themes, and try to group questions around that theme. Then, if a participant wanders from one theme into another, I can ask a followup question about it. Also, I like to leave a section to the side of my notes for what I call “I don’t know” questions, or, in other words, things I want to look up later on my own. Since I lead a lot of works about topics that are unfamiliar to me, sometimes I have a lot of “I don’t know” questions. And even when I lead discussions about something very familiar – say Shakespeare – I still come up with a ton of questions, which is so exciting!

Because I love to learn, I now realize that “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable response in any discussion. Not only have I fulfilled the old adage that “the more you learn, the less you know,” but I also get energized from the list of “I don’t know” questions down the side of my discussion notes.

To see this method in action, join us for the July Quarterly Discussion on either July 11 or 13. We will read a selection from Henri Bergson’s The Creative Mind. Email asimon@hmu.edu for more information or to register.

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Math According to Archimedes and Hardy

February 1, 2019

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

I have a number of questions still rumbling around after Harrison Middleton University’s January Quarterly Discussion. We read Archimedes’ Sand Reckoner and G. H. Hardy’s Mathematician’s Apology. I put these two pieces together because I am interested in mathematical discourse separated by thousands of years. More than time, however, they also came from different parts of the world, encountered very different technological advances, and lived immensely different lifestyles. Archimedes of Syracuse was a Greek mathematician and inventor who lived around 287-212 BC. Hardy, on the other hand, was born in 1877 in England and showed an early aptitude for numbers. He continued with math through college when he became largely interested in “pure mathematics” which, he claimed, is more noble than practical math. So, my first question is whether or not Archimedes’ Sand Reckoner corresponds to pure math, or practical math?

In The Sand Reckoner (which I have written about before), Archimedes sets out to demonstrate that math has strategies to break down something as large and abstract as the measure of the universe, or the grains of sand on earth. His proof begins with rather large assumptions, such as “I suppose the diameter of the sun to be about 30 times that of the moon and not greater.” Initially, I did not understand why Archimedes would base a proof upon such unknowns. However, I have always thought that the exercise was more to inspire imagination than prove an actuality. And now, based upon conversation during the Quarterly Discussion, I see that Archimedes wanted not just to inspire imagination, but to demonstrate the potential of math. He was explaining that math functions on strategies which engenders new information. This would be important, of course, living in a time when math was largely unknown and therefore, seen as untrustworthy. So, to me, The Sand Reckoner is not a proof of any one thing, but a proof of math itself. He asks his king, other educators, and perhaps his community to believe in the potential of math and to contemplate questions of great size.

Jumping forward to Hardy’s piece, then, he draws a very decisive line between practical mathematicians and pure mathematicians. Practical math builds things like bridges and steam engines. Pure math contemplates greatness. For some reason, Hardy’s differentiation always brings me back to Archimedes, who built levers and invented all sorts of practical things, but yet also contemplated the universe. Does the mathematician who builds the bridge not also dwell upon other possibilities? Surely not all of them do, but I find Hardy’s approach very severe and limiting. I am not sure if his words are meant to inspire others to attempt a career in math, or to explain to the masses how little they actually know. Either way, I feel that the work fails when placed next to something like Archimedes’ proof which shows math’s potential rather than belabors the value of ambitious men. Perhaps, though, my perspective is naive, since I do not grasp much of the math that would place me in this elite group.

Clearly Hardy values creative thought over any other pursuit. I can identify with this, but I wonder if his criticisms speak to moral dilemmas of his day. Hardy wrote A Mathematician’s Apology in 1940. I have to think that war-time inventions must have been on his mind when he differentiated between practical and pure mathematics. And yet again, I return to thinking about Archimedes who built many machines of war such as the Archimedes Claw and catapults. Does this remove him from the rank of pure mathematician (if he was ever considered such)? In theory, I believe that I understand Hardy’s point. In fact, I relish the idea that a life of creative thought or philosophical discourse is as worthy as shipbuilding. This would justify my own life as well. However, it seems rarer that society allows such thinking to exist. Rather, society is structured in a way in which we must all pay for food and shelter, and creative thought does not pay. I think that perhaps Hardy might have been trying to tell us, the public, that we should value creativity more than we currently do.

Additionally, his message does not address morality at all, which the group found interesting. I wonder how Hardy would tie ambition to morality. He glories in the uselessness of math because it cannot be tied to evil. He writes,

“If the theory of numbers could be employed for any practical and obviously honourable purpose, if it could be turned directly to the furtherance of human happiness or the relief of human suffering, as physiology and even chemistry can, then surely neither [Carl Friedrich] Gauss nor any other mathematician would have been so foolish as to decry or regret such applications. But science works for evil as well as for good (and particularly, of course, in times of war); and both Gauss and lesser mathematicians may be justified in rejoicing that there is one science, at any rate, and that their own, whose very remoteness from ordinary human activities should keep it gentle and clean.”

According to Hardy, pure math never filters into practical applications. I find this reasoning illogical, though since again, levers as created by Archimedes were once thought impossible and are now the foundation of much greater machines. In my mind, the lever was purely theoretical at one point and is now elementary science. Also, once public, how can anyone protect the ways in which their work will be used (or not used)? How can Hardy surmise that the pure math of today will not be the applied math of tomorrow? And does its application make it any less pure?

As always, I am indebted to a wonderful group who wanders through these questions with me. The next Quarterly Discussion will be held in April 2019. For more information email asimon@hmu.edu. I look forward to hearing from you!

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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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