Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Brave New Gender Roles, Revisited

Bored beatniks deep in the jungle of a new self-concept, circa 1957.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Saturday, April 25, 2020

"What is the Meaning of Life?" is not a philosophical question: a few remarks on Moby-Dick, Chapter 54, "The Town-Ho's Story"

Highbrow readers will recall my October 19, 2019 post in which I drew a distinction showing that "What is the meaning of life?" is not a philosophical question. Please click HERE to review that discussion.

The question of the meaning of life is explored in Moby-Dick ad infinitum. Melville's continuously-unfolding-conclusion is anti-Platonic, post-Calvinist, and his formulation might be compared to Milton, Judaism and various threads we could associate with Existentialism an
d the Beats. In science, Melville is advancing skeptical-empirical science, which is characteristically rooted in Aquinas's Natural Theology, and which culminates in Bacon and Locke. Politically--and his political philosophy also compares to Locke--his historiography is straight up and down Classic Liberalism.

Along these lines, I should point out the remarkable chapter entitled "The Town-Ho's Story", which advances apophatic theology, treating such questions as "Is the white whale the agent of God? Is Moby Dick actually God himself, righting wrongs in this world and exacting vengeance upon evil men who prey upon the innocent?" Approaching the question apohatically, Melville's answer is "no", and in this answer he advances a rather dire cosmology that compares to Hobbes (who, incidentally, Melville would otherwise reject at a number of levels).

"The Town-Ho's Story" is wonderfully plotted: After enduring endless abuses at the hands of the bullying mate Mr. Radney, a resourceful sailor named Steelkilt gives Radney a broken jaw. After assorted power-plays, Steelkilt plots to murder Radney, but before he can commit the evil deed, Moby Dick appears, gives the ship a bump, and the shock throws Radney into the sea, whereupon Moby Dick takes the mate into his crooked jaws and drags him down to Davey Jones. In the wake of this astonishing (and very likely "fictitious") event, Steelkilt leads a mutiny and takes the ship. At the conclusion of the mutiny story (there is more, of course, as the story is told by Ishmael who places the meaning of the story in an apophatic context), Steelkilt is presiding as the Captain and two or three loyal sailors are put into a whaleboat and pushed off to find their fate out in the middle of the Pacific. In a clearly emblematic phrase replete with philosophical meaning, Steelkilt expresses his contempt for the Captain, who had been consistently indifferent to the suffering of the crew and the abuses of Radney. 

Steelkilt laughs at the Captain as the whaleboat is pushed off: "A pretty scholar! . . . Adios, Senor!"

Moby Dick by Rockwell Kent

Friday, April 17, 2020

Jean-Paul Garnier reads Michael Butterworth

Please click HERE to hear Jean-Paul Garnier of Space Cowboy Books read Michael Butterworth's "Spunkee Doo!"

The reading begins at 12:45.

Please click HERE to learn more about Space Cowboy Books.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

"Eddie Allan's Mysterious Manifesto" - a note from William Weiss

One of my colleagues in International Authors is William Weiss, a recently-retired English professor from the Northeast, who now makes his home in the Mojave Desert. Professor Weiss attended school at a number of universities and colleges, including Naropa, where he was a student of William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. Professor Weiss taught at Patten College, UC Berkeley, National Hispanic University, the San Francisco Conservation Corps, and SUNY Adirondack. His books include Orbiting William S. Burroughs, and Hallucination May Constitute the Final Theorem under the pen name Professor Nil. Most recently, he published  Escape Trajectories (in collaboration with Gareth Jackson) and 68 Cantos. William Weiss will have a short story in the forthcoming volume of Emanations.

The other day, he wrote to tell me that he had been reading Emanations: Chorus Pleiades, and in it he found my short story "Eddie Allan's Mysterious Manifesto."  Now, this story also appears in my novel Echoes as the second chapter.  Professor Weiss writes:

I read "Eddie Allan's Mysterious Manifesto"... I like Eddie’s sense of humor and would have laughed out loud if not for the piece’s final seriousness.  Identifying the fantastic proliferation of information with horror is Eddie’s true contribution.  I encountered well-managed and clever echoes of Burroughs, Foucault, Chomsky, Baudrillard and others in the course of his manifesto.  Very nice to hear.
I'll say this for now:  I'm with Eddie.  I don't like telephones and expect nothing from computers (I call them deified appliances).  I agree that the NETWORKS are hastening the apocalypse, but I don't find this a bad thing.  Eddie makes the connection to the acceleration of accumulation of wealth (for who?) via the NETWORKS (that is, via the sheer accumulation of information), but the NETWORKS are part and parcel of postindustrial capitalism, and the socialist's dream of a worldwide rejection of capitalism is about as likely as us making the 2-degree Celsius goal.  It's ridiculous.  No one can AFFORD to drop capitalism.  Especially now.  The MACHINE and its NETWORKS will crank on until the exhaustion of natural resources makes capitalism as we know it impossible.  The militarization of the planet will proceed, the countries with the most powerful militaries will grab every last ounce of oil left, and all of this will only edge us closer to nuclear conflict.  (How about a nuclear winter for a climate crisis?). Let the Himalayas of information rise.  When the grids go down, and they will, those mountains will disappear like sand castles on the beach (the last 3 words of that sentence remind me of Nevil Shute's novel and Brinkley's The Last Ship).
And I'll step out on a limb with another Eddie, Ed Abbey, here: let's get it over with.
    The horror.  The horror.
I sent William Weiss the following response:
Thanks for the encouraging message.

The "Manifesto" is also in  Echoes--the second chapter--and the rest of the stories/chapters reflect (and sometimes with wonderful derangement) the themes in the Manifesto.  Do you know Poe's biography?  He did not get along with his step-father, John Allan. The bizarre relationship Eddie has with his step-father in the trilogy is touched on several times in Echoes, and in the second volume of the trilogy it becomes one of the many bizarre themes. Then it "haunts" the third volume in all kinds of strange ways.

"When the grids go down, and they will, those mountains will disappear like sand castles on the beach."

In the second novel, the grid goes down; and then in the third novel, what's left over melts like those sandcastles...

Ah, Ed Abbey--in the Second Volume there is a lot of monkey-wrenching going on.  Bronson Bodine and his faithful sidekick Nabnak Tornasuk keep busy shutting down nuke power plants, mines, factories, satellites, sweat shops, ore processing plants, smelters, and so on.  But, as I say, in the third volume that gets melted too.
The second and third volumes of The Invisible Tower trilogy should be available by the end of the Summer. Learn more about the first volume, Echoes, by clicking the cover image: 

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

The Naturalistic Fallacy

Wherever you look, G. E. Moore's Naturalistic Fallacy is not described very clearly.  Moore's own explanation is too-involved, and his illustrations of the idea are tiresome. When she explains it in her paper "Modern Moral Philosophy," Elizabeth Anscombe, for some reason, embarks upon a long-winded description of an idea from Hume that resembles the Naturalistic Fallacy. The Ethics textbooks are similarly confusing, or boring.

It is, however, a pretty easy idea. First, recall what we already know about propositions.  Next, consider how the Naturalistic Fallacy helps us to understand why (I believe) that Logic cannot prove--like a mathematical or geometric proof--a moral proposition.

Consider the following propositions:

1) Two and two is four.

2) Stealing is wrong.

In each of these two examples, is has a different kind of meaning.

In the first example, "Two and two is four", is means equivalence.  It is true in an analytic sense.  That is, it is logically true: 2 + 2 = 4.  We don't usually call mathematical equations "propositions," but note that the example here is a grammatical sentence, and it is proved by the relationship of (2 + 2) and (4). That is, two and two is four.

In the second example, "Stealing is wrong," is means "I think" or "some people think" stealing is wrong.  Although many people agree, and even though I (the consummate highbrow) and you (card-carrying members of the Highbrow Commonwealth) think (or believe) stealing is wrong, in this case, is is not the same as equivalence or conclusive proof.

Stealing is wrong because we say so.

George Edward Moore

Monday, April 13, 2020

Will things get back to normal?

Setting aside the semantic questions regarding "normality" and "where things are now," it might be useful to bring to bear some metaphors.  Melville comes to mind.  Or, compare Heart of Darkness, specifically the views expressed by the manager of the Middle Station as he speaks to a minion about getting rid of Mr. Kurtz. Unknown to the two men, Marlowe is listening above, half-asleep on the deck of the steamboat. The manager says, "You can count on this!" and he extends his hand to indicate the cannibal jungle around them.  Shocked--and of course he is half-asleep--Marlowe nearly hits his head against the deck.

Of course, we do not live in a jungle, and we can count on this.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Using Logic to Prove Propositions

Here is a brief review of philosophical propositions, previously summarized in Highbrow, June 1, 2019:
A proposition is a statement that can be said to make a claim about reality or a state of affairs.  Our examination of a proposition should seek to identify the proposition’s meaning, its sense (its meaning in context and/or in relation to something else), its verity (true or false?), it’s legitimacy (whether it is the case or is not the case) and the proposition’s appropriateness. Identifying the context in which a proposition is uttered is key to answering these questions and to coming to an understanding of the proposition.
For the nonce, let’s say that there are four types of propositions: 1) Analytic, such as, “two and two is four”; 2) Internal, such as “I have a headache”; 3) External, or Empirical, such as, “I hear a Cardinal in the trees” or “I see an error in the data"; and 4) Categorical/Subjective, such as, “stealing is wrong" or “the ‘Mona Lisa’ is a beautiful painting.” 
I am wondering if there is after all only one type of proposition that can either be true or false (or anyway that can be proven true or false with logic): Analytic. The others are rather statements of a different order. Internal propositions do not describe anything that can be logically proven: whether they are true or false has little or no bearing upon our philosophical understanding or a description of actual reality. Rather, such statements guide (or do not guide) our behavior and our utterances. External propositions can be no more than descriptive. If descriptive statements are false then they are simply nonsense, and thus are not propositions; that is, they don't inform us about anything, except perhaps that a person who vocalizes them is stupid, lacking a reliable or reasonable sensibility, or is lying. Categorical (aesthetic, moral, political) propositions—or rather the expressions of moral, aesthetic, or political views—are neither true nor false, they are simply statements about belief or conviction. The question is, are they persuasive or do people agree?
Let's dilate on these ideas through a series of questions:

1) Can you "prove" that you have a headache?  Can you imagine having to prove to someone that you have a headache?  

2) Can you prove a moral proposition?  Yes or no, and why?

3)  After thinking about these two questions, consider the following: is it possible to prove a moral proposition (stealing is wrong) the same way you can prove an analytic proposition (two and two is four)? 

First Question: Can you "prove" that you have a headache?  
Can you imagine having to prove to someone that you have a headache?

Consider being in a situation in which you were asked to "prove" that you have a headache.  Outside of a philosophy or ethics class, where a lot of curious (but also silly) questions are discussed, people do not normally need (or are asked) to prove that they have a headache.  What philosophers do is misuse language to create questions that are not really questions at all. These questions are rather "playing around with words". Philosophers are making up questions and concepts that are based on the misuse of words and language.  This is what Bacon is talking about in the Idols of the Market and the Idols of  the Theatre.  Sometimes Philosophers are not talking about the real world, but instead are talking about abstractions--using words that sound like you are talking about something, but are really just parts of the real word.  An "abstraction" is a "part".  Consider the following discussion of abstractions and conceptual confusion from Highbrow, August 6, 2019:

Philosophical Terminology, Conceptual Abstraction, 
and Confused Understanding

From "Dance Curves: On the Dances of Palucca,”
Wassily Kandinsky (1926)

Kandinsky's dynamic drawings are wonderfully pleasing. They underscore the beauty of the original subject as well as represent impressions that move us emotionally. 

They also elegantly illustrate the principle of conceptual abstraction.

Many philosophical terms and concepts are similarly abstractions. An erudite fellow in a lecture hall can equivocate endlessly about "absolutism" and "relativism", "freedom" and "determinism", but he is not talking about the real world. He is talking about abstractions--he is talking about mere "sketches" that represent only "parts" of the real world. 
Compare two-dimensional cardboard stage scenery in a theater, and picture the erudite fellow acting as though these cut-outs aren't flat pieces of scenery, but are actual buildings, real trees, three-dimensional hills hundreds of feet tall, or what have you. The lecturer can deploy all sorts of learned "examples" and "statements" (that is, effervescent terminology and exhilarating traces of cogitation concocted by other philosophers) to create the impression that these are important concepts, and he can speak and act as though his fluently equivocating upon these abstractions is discussing the real world, but the fact remains the lecturer is merely discussing abstractions--fanciful sketches that suggest or thinly evoke reality, but are actually illusions, wispy figments, evanescent nebulae, and fading imitations.

For further elaboration, see Bacon's remarks on the Idols of the Theatre in the
Novum Organum, or Melville's dilation upon the images of whales in chapters 55, 56 & 57 of Moby-Dick.
If you need to review, please click HERE for a summary of Bacon's Four Idols. 

A good way to think of Bacon's Idols of the Theatre is to picture a philosopher standing on a stage with cardboard trees on either side of him. Say the cardboard tree on his left has the word "Absolutism" written on it, and the cardboard tree on the right has the word "Relativism" written on it.  These two-dimensional pieces of stage scenery resemble trees, but they are not real trees, they are abstractions. In the same way, the concepts of "Freedom" and "Determinism" can be mere abstractions.  As Bacon says in his discussion of the Idols of the Market-place:
Learned men are often in error in their definitions and explanations because words plainly force and overrule the understanding, and throw all into confusion, and lead men away into numberless empty controversies and idle fancies. 

Among moral philosophers, a subject of interest is "Absolutism vs. Relativism," but in exploring this dichotomy they are not talking about the real world, they are talking about abstractions.  "Absolutism vs. Relativism" is an example of what Bacon means by "empty controversy".   In the philosophical discussion framed by "Freedom vs. Determinism," we see another example of an "empty controversy." Very often, because they are not careful with the way language shapes their concepts, philosophers get carried away discussing abstractions that are mere two-dimensional stage scenery that resemble things in the real world, but which are not things in the real world.

Here is more of Bacon's discussion of how words are misleading and thus misused:
But the Idols of the Market-place are the most troublesome of all: idols which have crept into the understanding through the alliances of words and names. For men believe that their reason governs words; but it is also true that words react on the understanding; and it is this that has rendered philosophy and the sciences sophistical and inactive. Now words, being commonly framed and applied according to the capacity of the vulgar, follow those lines of division which are most obvious to the vulgar understanding. And whenever an understanding of greater acuteness or a more diligent observation would alter those lines to suit the true divisions of nature, words stand in the way and resist change. Whence it comes to pass that the high and formal discussions of learned men end oftentimes in disputes about words and names.
Second Question:  Can you prove a moral proposition?

I believe that the only proposition you can prove with logic is the Analytic proposition.  The other three, Internal, External/Empirical, and Moral (and aesthetic and political) propositions can not be proved with logic, but are rather issues of conviction, opinion and consensus.  Thus:

Internal propositions are statements we make as we work and live with each other. "I have a headache." Yes, sometimes an Internal proposition is a lie--people do tell lies from time to time--but they aren't really statements to be proved (or that can be proved) with logic.

External/Empirical propositions are statements people make when they are working together to assess a situation, evaluate scientific data, and so on.  We don't use logic to prove them, but rather we make statements about our observations, our disagreements, our agreements and our consensus.

Moral/Aesthetic/Political propositions are categorical, they are based upon assumptions, convictions and tastes that people hold.  We don't use logic to, strictly-speaking, prove them; but, yes, we do use logic as we present the reasons why we hold these convictions. Thus in these discussions, logic is a matter of linguistic accuracy, grammar and understanding, but not scientific proof.

Third Question:  Is it possible to prove a moral proposition (stealing is wrong) the same way you can prove an analytic proposition (two and two is four)?

Again, you cannot prove Moral, Aesthetic or Political propositions. We use logic to argue for our convictions and tastes, but logic cannot prove our convictions.  Kant is a memorable example of a person who thought logic and reason could be used to prove Moral and Aesthetic propositions.  He actually believed that we (or rather important philosophers) could use logic to prove that one work of art is better than another, or that one piece of music is better than another.  

In a few days, we will consider this third question in greater detail as we examine G. E. Moore's Naturalistic Fallacy. 

Until then, count on me to maintain my important efforts entertaining the Highbrow Commonwealth and the wits who make up its polity with the usual hastily-drawn bits of nonsense and ephemera that comprise the materials that concern us.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

The Admirable Crichton 1957

I first saw The Admirable Crichton when I was a young teenager. I was impressed, as it is a very funny and well-acted film, which, at that time, seemed to me to expose the weaknesses and "buffoonery" of the British class system. To my young self, the film underscored the notion that, notwithstanding our social positions and relative wealth, we are all equal so far as our moral and spiritual capacities can take us.  

When I saw it just the other night, however, I was struck by the conservative tenor of the film, for rather than advocating some Jeffersonian philosophy of equality, the film actually represents an endorsement of the familiar schedule of Stoic "truisms" that we associate with British society, and that are drawn to a pinpoint by the English in one of their more unfortunate phrases: "That's the way it is." Kenneth Moore in the role of the Butler Crichton and the tropical island "Guv"--and not very ironically, alas--is the film's chief advocate and exponent of this principle.  While not advancing something as reprehensible as the Roman apatheia, still this film strikes me (indeed, strikes me over the head) as being politically, even metaphysically, committed, first, to the British class system, and, second, to the importance placed upon people dutifully and properly playing their designated roles in society. Somewhere--and this is articulated near the end of the film by Crichton himself--the English, and the English of all social classes, got it stuck into their heads that civilization is equivalent to playing one's role. This hardly can strike me as the foundation for a respectable--or sustainable--national ethos, but there it is.  Moreover, it is curious that the central inverter of social roles and the right-to-lead-others, the right to command, and the right to expect the "natural" loyalty and admiration of his social inferiors--is Crichton himself. His social place is determined by environmental context, and it is his duty to play his role to that context. And whatever his context--be it far-flung tropical island or stately English manor--the Guv is both philosophically and vocationally committed to the view.  In that sense, The Admirable Crichton rather leaves a distasteful impression that calls to mind the grizzly sociological lessons of The Lord of the Flies.

It remains a funny film--I suppose--but (and other than my shock at its conservative pitch), now seeing it as an adult, I am wonderfully taken with how Sally Ann Howes shines in the role of Lady Mary. Miss Howes is wonderfully beautiful here, and really much more  impressive, in a forceful sense, than she appears in her very memorable and altogether better performance as Truly Scrumptious opposite Dick Van Dyke in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Note: in this recording, the film ends at 1:28:50.  Some extraneous bits from the film follow hence, evidently tacked on due to error, and can be disregarded.

Thursday, April 2, 2020