Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Schmittizing of leftist critique

This New Republic piece seems to be a trashing of Richard Neuhaus from Damon Linker, who was his associate editor at First Things from 2001-05. One paragraph really stood out:
Carl Schmitt, the political theorist who devoted a great deal of thought to this dilemma, determined that such men have no choice but to make an arbitrary yet resolute decision to obey some authority, any authority. Taking account of the options in Germany in 1933, Schmitt swore obedience to Hitler. Neuhaus, of course, makes an infinitely more respectable decision in favor of the Vatican. He does so because, in his words, 'the promise of Jesus that he would send the Holy Spirit to guide his disciples' is a 'promise made to the Church.' But why does Neuhaus--and why should we--trust this promise? He claims that he can know that the Church's authority is worthy of his obedience in the same way that a bride can 'know' that her 'bridegroom will be faithful.' Though Neuhaus does not employ the term, what he is describing is merely another leap of faith, a melodramatic form of cosmic confidence that derives its psychological strength from its aversion to philosophical thinking.
It's not as though Neuhaus frequently cites Schmitt or that there is some other obvious connection. Carl-Schmitt-slander seems to have become a trend, hasn't it? I hadn't heard of the guy before last year, and now, he's the hip brush with which to tar conservatives. Maybe Tim Robbins will write an awkward play about him. At least with Leo Strauss, there was an actual, discernable influence that the man had, albeit not nearly as pervasive as critics claim. My take is that of prominent modern conservatives, few are Strassians; virtually none are Schmittsters (what would the word be?).

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The private, the public, and Hawthorne

A friend at Random House sent me virtually every 19th century novel in Modern Library imprint, and I'm re-reading The Scarlet Letter now. A passage today struck me:
One day, leaning his forehead on his hand, and his elbow on the sill of the open window, that looked towards the grave-yard, he talked with Roger Chillingworth, while the old man was examining a bundle of unsightly plants.
"Where," asked he, with a look askance at them,—for it was the clergyman's peculiarity that he seldom, now-a-days, looked straightforth at any object, whether human or inanimate,—"where, my kind doctor, did you gather those herbs, with such a dark, flabby leaf?"
"Even in the grave-yard here at hand," answered the physician, continuing his employment. "They are new to me. I found them growing on a grave, which bore no tombstone, no other memorial of the dead man, save these ugly weeds that have taken upon themselves to keep him in remembrance. They grew out of his heart, and typify, it may be, some hideous secret that was buried with him, and which he had done better to confess during his lifetime."
"Perchance," said Mr. Dimmesdale, "he earnestly desired it, but could not."
"And wherefore?" rejoined the physician. "Wherefore not; since all the powers of nature call so earnestly for the confession of sin, that these black weeds have sprung up out of a buried heart to make manifest, an outspoken crime?"
"That, good Sir, is but a fantasy of yours," replied the minister. "There can be, if I forbode aright, no power, short of the Divine mercy, to disclose, whether by uttered words, or by type or emblem, the secrets that may be buried with a human heart. The heart, making itself guilty of such secrets, must perforce hold them, until the day when all hidden things shall be revealed. Nor have I so read or interpreted Holy Writ, as to understand that the disclosure of human thoughts and deeds, then to be made, is intended as a part of the retribution. That, surely, were a shallow view of it. No; these revelations, unless I greatly err, are meant merely to promote the intellectual satisfaction of all intelligent beings, who will stand waiting, on that day, to see the dark problem of this life made plain. A knowledge of men's hearts will be needful to the completest solution of that problem. And I conceive, moreover, that the hearts holding such miserable secrets as you speak of will yield them up, at that last day, not with reluctance, but with a joy unutterable."
It recalled a conversation I had last week with an old friend. We got to talking (writing, actually) about whether truly private experience is possible. My friend recounted many experiences in which he had intimations of things which we might term "private": intimations of the death of loved ones, clairvoyant or telepathic experiences, and that sort of thing. One of the things that Hawthorne keeps coming back to is the social and personal skirmishes across the public/private border. A woman has a private affair that bears public fruit in the birth of her child and results in her being very publicly humiliated. Her husband abandons his public claims and ties to her and assumes a new identity. He attaches himself to her lover, a minister, who holds the knowledge of his sinful affair deep within his own heart, where it nonetheless becomes known and visible to the husband. Throughout, the public and private have a way of bleeding into one another. Never really saw this before (of course, you don't see much the first time around).

Sunday, March 12, 2006

The worst movies of all time == the best movies of the 80's?

What was it about the 80's? My theory is that what pop music was to the 70's, pop films were to the 80's -- that is, all the money, headlines, raves, and Oscars were grabbed by films that were practically unwatchable. Just saw Cocoon and Good Morning, Vietnam this weekend. Wow. Awesomely bad. Supremely unwatchable.

And don't get me started on Oliver Stone! What a hellish decade in movies. What were we thinking?

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Paranoid thoughts of mind control

The Pope likes to unwind by listening to his iPod. . . . The Queen, President Bush and Tony Blair all own an iPod.
Can a one-world government be far behind?

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Critique of Pure Reason

What can you say about the Critique that hasn't already been said? I revisited this book as a result of a discussion with the Prince of Lit Kicks, this time around at a more leisurely pace.

This is a daunting work. It's also a necessary work, inasmuch as any understand of contemporary thought and intellectual history must encounter it. Kant has influenced nearly every major school of thought and cultural trend for the last 200 years. Below, I'll try to sketch his thought in this Critique.

This is the story of Immanuel Kant, who found philosophy a mess and sought to fix it. Specifically, he was a former Rationalist who was disconcerted by British Empiricism (specifically the skeptical philosophy of David Hume). He sought to provide a grounding for the truths of empirical science and mathematics, establish the possibility of religious faith and practice, while at the same time avoid dogmatism in metaphysical reasoning.

How did he seek to do this? By establishing a critique of reason whereby he understands the validity of all mental constructs. Kant distinguish between judgments which are a priori (prior to experience) and a posteriori (arising out of experience), and judgments which are "analytic" (trivial, tautological) and "synthetic" (where the predicate adds something that is not contained within the subject). Are synthetic a priori judgments possible? Kant answers yes, and much of this book deals with what follows from that.

First Kant deals with how we have sense experience. He claims that space and time are necessary a priori conditions for sense experience -- not physical things in the world. The content of our experience is sense-data: raw sensation that arises outside ourselves or inside ourselves and is "given" in experience. The forms in which we construct that experience are space and time. Sensations, organized within us spatially and temporally yield sense experience (perceptions).

Kant then proceeds to our abstract thought. What he terms "Understanding" has pure, a priori concepts according to logical form. He calls these "Categories." These do NOT arise as a mere empirical habit/convention -- they are prior to experience and are necessary forms that allow rational beings to experience the world intelligibly. Thus, we take the raw givens of our Understanding, which are perceptions (which we dealt with under "Transcendental Aesthetic"), and we impose the categories upon these perceptions -- we "schematize" our experience.
Perceptions, when given intelligible form according to schemata, yield intelligible concepts. We are justified in doing this because the perceptions are not things-in-themselves, but mere appearances (phenomena), and in order for these phenomena to exist in an experience that is coherent and consistent for us, they must have these forms. We are NOT justified in applying these categories to things-in-themselves (noumena).

This is where Reason eats itself. It tries to do the same thing the Understanding did, but now it does this with respect to the big metaphysical questions. It starts with concepts and attempts to unify all phenomenal experience according to concepts and yield the Ideas of Pure Reason. When it does this, it gets all confuzelled. It tries to deal with 3 Big Problems (Kant uses the term "dialectic"):

  • Soul - Reason wants to insist that the thinking soul exists, that it is subject (pure substance), that it is simple, and that it is unchangeable through all its activities. These are the Paralogisms of Pure Reason. We need these ideas -- their contraries are unthinkable for us(?), but these are not demonstrable.
  • The World - Reason wants to answer questions about the series of appearances that constitute the world: Is the World limited or unlimited in space and time? Is the world made up of simples or composites? Does freedom exist in the world? Is there a necessary being connected with the world? These are the Antinomies of Pure Reason. Unlike the Paralogisms, these questions admit of contradictory answers. They, too, cannot be adjudicated by pure reason.
  • God - Reason wants to demonstrate the existence of God. Kant refers to this as the Ideal of Pure Reason. He claims that all arguments demonstating God's existence in fact, despite outward appearances, depend upon one method, the "ontological" proof of God's existence, which Kant disallows as transempirical.

Kant tries to tell us how to employ reason. First, stop arguing speculatively about God and other ultimate metaphysical realities! But he does urge us to apply those metaphysical ideas in practical (moral) contexts -- we are obligated to do so. In this, he anticipates the Victorians, who were somewhat skeptical on matters of faith, but stressed the necessity of continuing to act according to traditional morality. The dialectic problems deals with ideas are not verifiable speculatively. They are not constitutive of experience. Rather, they serve a regulative function, specifically in the practical realm of morality.

Kant claims that reason is architectonic: it naturally wants to assume the greatest generality. Kant says this is fine for moral thinking, but bad for speculative thinking.

Kant says that philosophy answers these questions: "What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope for?" The bulk of Critique of Pure Reason answers the first question. The Critique of Practical Reason, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, Metaphysic of Morals, etc., answer the second question. The third question ties the two together -- this is what Kant deals with at the end of the first Critique.

Kant sees the great transendental ideas as being God, Immortality, and Freedom. They are the starting points of theistic religion (e.g. Christianity and Judaism). These can neither be verified nor disproved by speculative reason (since speculative reason must by its nature deal with givens (Latin, data) either from sense-experience or pure intuition (as in mathematics). These ideas, however, are necessary "regulative" ideas for the guidance of practical (moral reason) and are valid in that connection. Thus, the second Critique answers the question "What ought I to do?" by recourse to the transcendal idea of Freedom. The question, "what may I hope for?", is given response through the transcendental ideas of God and immortality, for if God does not exist, nothing can grant us happiness for moral behavior and unhappiness for immoral behavior, and if we're not immortal, God won't have anyone to reward.

I probably have made errors and inaccuracies in the above, but I hope I give a flavor for his thought. Kant is sober, earnest, and disciplined. Again, he's not easy, but I think he's worth the effort.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Telegraph | News | Soviets 'had Pope shot for backing Solidarity'

Was the Soviet Union behind the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II? An Italian commission says, yes, definitely. The man who was deputy chairman of the KGB at that time says no, as does the FSB, the re-named KGB.

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