Saturday


eight-ball

Last month, November 2016, marked the eight year anniversary for this blog. My first post, Opening Reflection, was dated 05 November 2008. Since then I have continued to post, although less frequently of late. I have become much less interested in tossing off a post about current events, and more interested in more comprehensive and detailed analyses, though blog posts are rarely associated with comprehensivity or detail. But that’s how I roll.

It is interesting that we have two distinct and even antithetical metaphors to identify non-trivial modes of thought. I am thinking of “dig deep” or “drill down” on the one hand, and, on the other hand, “overview” or “big picture.” The two metaphors are not identical, but each implies a particular approach to non-triviality, with the former implying an immersion in a fine-grained account of anything, while the latter implies taking anything in its widest signification.

Ideally, one would like to be both detailed and comprehensive at the same time — formulating an account of anything that is, at once, both fine-grained and which takes the object of one’s thought in its widest signification. In most cases, this is not possible. Or, rather, we find this kind of scholarship only in the most massive works, like Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, or Mario Bunge’s Treatise on Basic Philosophy. Over the past hundred years or so, scholarship has been going in exactly the opposite direction. Scholars focus on a particular area of thought, and then produce papers, each one of which focuses even more narrowly on one carefully defined and delimited topic within a particular area of thought. There is, thus, a great deal of very detailed scholarship, and less comprehensive scholarship.

Previously in Is it possible to specialize in the big picture? I considered whether it is even possible to have a scholarly discipline that focuses on the big picture. This question is posed in light of the implied dichotomy above: comprehensivity usually comes at the cost of detail, and detail usually comes at the cost of comprehensivity.

Another formulation of this dichotomy that brings out other aspects of the dilemma would to ask if it is possible to be rigorous about the big picture, or whether it is possible to be give a detailed account of the big picture — a fine-grained overview, as it were? I guess this is one way to formulate my ideal: a fine-grained overview — thinking rigorously about the big picture.

While there is some satisfaction in being able to give a concise formulation of my intellectual ideal — a fine-grained overview — I cannot yet say if this is possible, or if the ambition is chimerical. And if the ambition for a fine-grained overview is chimerical, is it chimerical because finite and flawed human beings cannot rise to this level of cognitive achievement, or is it chimerical because it is an ontological impossibility?

While an overview may necessarily lack the detail of a close and careful account of anything, so that the two — overview and detail — are opposite ends of a continuum, implying the ontological impossibility of their union, I do know, on the other hand, that clear and rigorous thinking is always possible, even if it lacks detail. Clarity and rigor — or, if one prefers the canonical Cartesian formulation, clear and distinct ideas — is a function of disciplined thinking, and one can think in a disciplined way about a comprehensive overview. If one allows that a fine-grained overview can be finely grained in virtue of the fine-grained conceptual infrastructure that one employs in the exposition of that overview, then, certainly, comprehensive detail is possible in this respect (even if in no other).

I could, then, re-state my ambition as formulated in my opening reflection such that, “my intention in this forum to view geopolitics through the prism of ideas,” now becomes my intention to formulate a fine-grained overview of geopolitics through the prism of ideas. But, obviously, I now seldom post on geopolitics, and am out to bag bigger game. This is, I think, implicit in the remit of a comprehensive overview of geopolitics. F. H. Bradley famously said, “Short of the Absolute God cannot stop, and, having reached that goal, He is lost, and religion with Him.” We might similarly say, short of big history geopolitics cannot stop, and, having reached that goal, it is lost, and political economy with it.

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Wednesday


2011 pictures 166

In my previous post, The Study of Civilization as Rigorous Science I drew upon examples from both Edmund Husserl and Bertrand Russell — the Godfathers, respectively, of contemporary continental and analytical philosophy — to illustrate some of the concerns of constituting a new science de novo, which is what a science of civilization must be.

In particular, I quoted Husserl to the effect that true science eschews “profundity” in favor of Cartesian clarity and distinctness. Since Husserl himself was none-too-clear a writer, his exposition of a distinction between profundity and clarity might not be especially clear. But another example occurred to me. There is a wonderful passage from Bertrand Russell in which he describes the experience of intellectual insight:

“Every one who has done any kind of creative work has experienced, in a greater or less degree, the state of mind in which, after long labour, truth, or beauty, appears, or seems to appear, in a sudden glory — it may be only about some small matter, or it may be about the universe. The experience is, at the moment, very convincing; doubt may come later, but at the time there is utter certainty. I think most of the best creative work, in art, in science, in literature, and in philosophy, has been the result of such a moment. Whether it comes to others as to me, I cannot say. For my part, I have found that, when I wish to write a book on some subject, I must first soak myself in detail, until all the separate parts of the subject matter are familiar; then, some day, if I am fortunate, I perceive the whole, with all its parts duly interrelated. After that, I only have to write down what I have seen. The nearest analogy is first walking all over a mountain in a mist, until every path and ridge and valley is separately familiar, and then, from a distance, seeing the mountain whole and clear in bright sunshine.”

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, CHAPTER XV, “The Theory of Ideas”

Russell returned to this metaphor of seeing a mountain whole after having wandered in the fog of the foothills on several occasions. For example:

“The time was one of intellectual intoxication. My sensations resembled those one has after climbing a mountain in a mist, when, on reaching the summit, the mist suddenly clears, and the country becomes visible for forty miles in every direction.”

Bertrand Russell, The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell: 1872-1914, Chapter 6, “Principia Mathematica”

…and again…

“Philosophical progress seems to me analogous to the gradually increasing clarity of outline of a mountain approached through mist, which is vaguely visible at first, but even at last remains in some degree indistinct. What I have never been able to accept is that the mist itself conveys valuable elements of truth. There are those who think that clarity, because it is difficult and rare, should be suspect. The rejection of this view has been the deepest impulse in all my philosophical work.”

Bertrand Russell, The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, Preface

Russell’s description of intellectual illumination employing the metaphor of seeing a mountain whole is an example of the what I have called the epistemic overview effect — being able to place the parts of knowledge within a larger epistemic whole gives us a context for understanding that is not possible when confined to any parochial, local, or limited perspective.

If we employ Russell’s metaphor to illustrate Husserl’s distinction between the profound and the pellucid we immediately see that an attempt at an exposition which is confined to wandering in the foothills enshrouded in mist and fog has the character of profundity, but when the sun breaks through, the fog lifts, and the mist evaporates, we see clearly and distinctly that which we had before known only imperfectly and at that point we are able to give an exposition in terms of Cartesian clarity and distinctness. Russell’s insistence that he never thought that the mist contained any valuable elements of truth is of a piece with Husserl eschewing profundity.

Just so, a science of civilization should surprise us with unexpected vistas when we see the phenomenon of civilization whole after having familiarized ourselves with each individual parts of it separately. When the moment of illumination comes, dispelling the mists of profundity, we realize that it is no loss at all to let go of the profundity that has, up to that time, been our only guide. The definitive formulation of a concept, a distinction, or a principle can suddenly cut through the mists that we did not even realize were clouding our thoughts, revealing to us the perfect clarity that had eluded us up to that time. As Russell noted that, “this view has been the deepest impulse in all my philosophical work,” so too this is the deepest impulse in my attempt to understand civilization.

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Addendum on Illness

11 December 2009

Friday


Further to my last post, The Experience of Illness, I find myself still sick, and only marginally better than the day before. However, I am mildly pleased to be able to say that I recovered one of the ideas that I lost during the first stages of my illness, though I’m not yet to the point of writing anything down: the ideas I have at present are precariously preserved exclusively in consciousness, and when I fall asleep, I fall asleep with the worry that they will not be there when I wake up.

Yesterday, when I was feeling particularly fatigued again, I noticed that weakness of the will is magnified by an order of magnitude (if not several) by the experience of illness. My resolutions to accomplish the simplest tasks slipped away scarcely noticed. This strikes me as weakness of the will of the purest sort, because it is a weakness of the will that follows from the physical weakness of the body. Many accounts of weakness of the will assimilate weakness of the will to the classical Greek term akrasia (ἀκρασία), and akrasia in turn is assimilated to irrationality, but there is nothing essentially irrational in being too weak to follow through with a resolution.

If a person who is ill resolves to prepare some healthy food, but fails to do so out of weakness, instead eating prepared foods that leave the person feeling less well than before, we understand this as a literal expression of weakness. The individual knows that healthy food would be better but is incapable of pursuing the optimal course of action. The most common examples of weakness of the will are not too far removed from this, for examples, instances of people who claim that they want to stop drinking or smoking but find themselves unable to do so. Weakness of the will in a more strictly moral sense shades away from these concrete examples, but should not necessarily be thought to represent a different kind of experience. One may know the morally optimal course of action without having the strength to follow through with it. This is not at all unusual, and even in our regimented lives in the midst of industrialized society we face such decisions on an almost daily basis. Who can count the number of times they have hesitated to do battle with a bureaucracy, even knowing that one is right, because one knows that one doesn’t have the strength for the fight? Far from being an instance of irrationality, such a judgment involves a rational assessment of one’s capabilities and an adjustment of one’s expectations in line with one’s capabilities — an eminently reasonable, if humbling, undertaking.

Recent philosophy has moved progressively farther away from Cartesian dualism and toward the reintegration of mind and body. This has been a necessary corrective to an idea extrapolated beyond its scope of validity. But while this has given us a better appreciation of the embodied mind, the consequences are not such as to flatter our vanity. The moral capabilities of an individual are a function of the physical vigor and vitality of the individual — this is the harsh and unforgiving lesson of embodiment. However much we might like to think of ourselves as refined, spiritual, and elevated, even the most subtle and sophisticated minds must acknowledge that the mind is more clearly and distinctly aware of the pangs of hunger and the plight of illness than any idea. It is only after the body has been satisfied, and entered into a state of quiescence, that the mind can move on to extra-corporeal pursuits.

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