Much of what I write here, whether commenting on current affairs to delving into the depths of prehistory, could be classed under the general rubric of philosophy of history. One of my early posts to this forum was Of What Use is Philosophy of History in Our Time? (An echo of the title of Hans Meyerhoff’s widely available anthology Philosophy of History in Our Time.) It could be argued that my subsequent posts have been attempts to answer this question (that is to say, to answer the question what is the use of philosophy of history in our time), to demonstrate the usefulness of bringing a philosophical perspective to history, contemporary and otherwise. The reader is left to judge whether this attempt has been a success (partial or otherwise) or a failure (partial or otherwise).

In several recent posts — as, for example in The Science of Time, Addendum on Big History as the Science of Time, and Human Agency and the Exaptation of Selection, inter alia — I have been writing a lot about the philosophy of history from the perspective of big history, which is a contemporary historiographical school that comes to history from the perspective of the big picture and primarily proceeds according to scientific naturalism. This latter condition makes of big history a particular species of naturalism.

In many posts to this forum I have emphasized my own naturalistic perspective both in philosophy generally speaking as well as more specifically in the philosophy of history. For example, in posts such as Natural History and Human History, The Continuity of Civilization and Natural History, and An Existentialist Philosophy of History, I have emphasized the continuity of human history and natural history, especially making the attempt to place civilization in a natural historical context.

This emphasis on big history and naturalism has meant that I have spent very little time writing about alternatives to naturalistic historical thought — with a certain exception, which the reader may well not immediately recognize, so I will point it out explicitly. In several posts — The Ethos of Formal Thought, Foucault’s Formalism, Cartesian Formalism, and Formal Strategy and Philosophical Logic: Work in Progress among them — I have discussed the possibility of formal thought in relation to historical understanding, i.e., topics not usually discussed from a formal perspective (which is usually confined to logic, mathematics, and some branches of science). Formalism represents a certain kind of countervailing intellectual influence to naturalism, and it has probably served roughly that function in my thought.

I have previously mentioned Darren Staloff’s lectures on the philosophy of history, The Search for a Meaningful Past: Philosophies, Theories and Interpretations of Human History. One of the motifs running through Staloff’s lectures is a contrast between what he calls naturalism and idealism. He sums up this motif in the final lecture, in which he adopts the perspectives of naturalism and idealism in turn, trying give the listener a sense of the claims of each tradition. I found Staloff’s exposition of idealism less persuasive that his exposition of naturalism, and so I found the motif of a contrast between naturalism and idealism a bit strained, since it seemed to me that idealism really couldn’t carry its own weight in the way that it might have been able to in the past.

Recently I’ve encountered an approach to the philosophy of history that could be called “idealist” (at least in a certain sense), and this is much more persuasive to me that Staloff’s analytical representatives of the idealist tradition, like R. G. Collingwood. I have found this idealist perspective in the work of Ludwig Landgrebe, who was one of Husserl’s research assistants.

The casual reader of this blog might well have picked up on the amount of contemporary continental philosophy that I have read, but it unlikely to have realized the extent to which Edmund Husserl and phenomenology have been an influence on my thought. Nevertheless, that influence has been profound, to the point that many of Husserl’s expositors and commentators have also influenced my thinking. Recently I have been reading some essays by Ludwig Landgrebe, and this has started to give me another perspective on the philosophy of history.

Landgrebe wrote at least two papers on the philosophy of history, as well as one chapter of his book, Major Problems in Contemporary European Philosophy, from Dilthey to Heidegger. No doubt there is more material, but this is what I have found translated into English. (Landgrebe wrote an entire book on the phenomenological philosophy of history, Phänomenologie und Geschichte, but this has not been translated into English.) The two papers are “Phenomenology as Transcendental Theory of History” (which can be found in the collection of essays Husserl: Expositions and Appraisals, edited by Elliston and McCormick, University of Notre Dame Press, 1977. pp. 101-113) and “A Meditation on Husserl’s Statement: ‘History is the grand fact of absolute Being'” (The Southwestern Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 5, Issue 3, Fall 1974, pp. 111-125).

It is well known that Husserl’s last work, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy, assembled posthumously from his papers, is the work in which Husserl placed phenomenology in historical context (for all practical purposes, for the first time), and considered the emergence of Western scientific thought in historical context. As such, this has been the point of departure of much historically-oriented phenomenological research, and the Crisis (as it has come to be known) and its supplementary texts were clearly influential for Landgrebe.

Landgrebe, however, as Husserl’s research assistant, was more than conversant with Husserl’s logical thought also. Husserl’s Experience and Judgment: Investigations in a Genealogy of Logic was a text assembled by Landgrebe from Husserl’s notes. Landgrebe consulted with Husserl throughout this project, and the original texts are all due to Husserl, but the structure of the book is entirely Landgrebe’s doing. Landgrebe brings the kind of rigor one learns in studying logic to his very compact essays on the philosophy of history. In this way, Landgrebe’s formulations have a formal character that makes them very congenial to me. Landgrebe’s approach is essentially that of a formal phenomenological theory of history, and this perspective allows me to assimilate Landgrebe’s insights both to idealistic historiography as well as my long-standing interest in formal thought.

If I were now to revise my speculative syllabus If I Lectured on the Philosophy of History (lecture 13 of which I had already assigned to phenomenology), I would definitely showcase Landgrebe’s philosophy of history as the most sophisticated phenomenological contribution to the philosophy of history.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Some day in the far future, if humanity (or some successor species) survives and if we establish ourselves as a spacefaring civilization, we will eventually have the opportunity to research whatever other civilizations exist in the universe and which we are able to find. With a study of multiple civilizations as a point of reference for the idea of civilization, we will not only possess a much richer conception of civilization, we may be able for formulate a genuine science of civilizations — a formal and theoretical science of civilization based on classificatory, comparative, and quantitative concepts that can be applied to known civilizations and employed in the prediction of not-yet-known civilizations.

Rudolf Carnap's account of scientific concepts from his Philosophical Foundations of Physics.

Let us begin, however, with something smaller and much more modest than entire civilizations, but something upon which civilizations are crucially dependent. Let us, then, begin with ideas.

I recently posted the following to Twitter:

The natural history of non-temporal transcendencies is the history of their epistemic order in human knowledge.

This remark could use some elucidation, since I have alluded to some ideas that are perhaps not widely known.

When I mentioned “non-temporal transcendencies” I was thinking of Husserl’s use of this idea in his 1905 lectures on time consciousness. here is a passage from the very end of his lectures, from the last two paragraphs of the last section:

“…we must say: the ‘presentation’ (appearance) of the state of affairs is presentation, not in the genuine sense, but in a derived sense. The state of affairs, properly speaking, is not something temporal either; it exists for a specific time but it not itself something in time as a thing or even is. Time-consciousness and presentation do not pertain to the state of affairs as a state of affairs but to the affair that belongs to it.”

“The same is true of all other founded acts and their correlates. A value has no place in time. A temporal object may be beautiful, pleasant, useful, and so on, and these may be for a definite period of time. But the beauty, pleasantness, etc., have no place in nature and in time. They are not things that appear in presentations or re-presentations.”

Edmund Husserl, On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time (1893-1917), translated by John Barnett Brough, Kluwer, 1991, sec. 45

I think that in this final passage of his lectures on time consciousness that Husserl has gone beyond a strictly phenomenological account and has almost imperceptibly passed over into metaphysics with his assertion that, “beauty, pleasantness, etc., have no place in nature and in time.” In other words, Husserl makes the claim that non-temporal transcendencies have no natural history. But in phenomenology nature has been suspended, so it is not within the competency of phenomenology to say that anything has no place in nature. Husserl is here struggling with the problem of apparently non-temporal objects in the light of the universality of constituting time consciousness, and he can’t quite yet see his way clear to a purely phenomenological treatment of non-temporal transcendencies.

Fortunately, although Husserl himself didn’t seem to make the leap, all the elements necessary to that leap are there in his thought, and it doesn’t take much phenomenological reflection to realize that non-temporal transcendencies have a peculiar way of appearing to consciousness, and that being a non-temporal transcendency is nothing more (for the phenomenologist as phenomenologist) than this peculiar way of appearing — a presentation in the derived sense, as Husserl calls it.

Edmund Husserl

When I wrote about the “epistemic order in human knowledge” in the same Twitter aphorism I was thinking about Hans Reichenbach’s distinction between the context of discovery and context of justification. Here is how Reichenbach drew the distinction:

When we call logic analysis of thought the expression should be interpreted so as to leave no doubt that it is not actual thought which we pretend to analyze. It is rather a substitute for thinking processes, their rational reconstruction, which constitutes the basis of logical analysis. Once a result of thinking is obtained, we can reorder our thoughts in a cogent way, constructing a chain of thoughts between point of departure and point of arrival; it is this rational reconstruction of thinking that is controlled by logic, and whose analysis reveals those rules which we call logical laws. The two realms of analysis to be distinguished may be called context of discovery, and context of justification. The context of discovery is left to psychological analysis, whereas logic is concerned with the context of justification, i.e., with the analysis of ordered series of thought operations so constructed that they make the results of thought justifiable. We speak of a justification when we possess a proof which shows that we have good grounds to rely upon those results.

Hans Reichenbach, Elements of Symbolic Logic, 1947, The Macmillan Company

I have elsewhere discussed rational reconstruction so I won’t go into any detail on that here, though the idea of rational reconstruction is fundamental to Reichenbach’s project and in fact inspires the distinction. Reichenbach’s distinctions implies that there are at least two orders into which human knowledge can be organized: in the order of discovery or in the order of justification (presumably in a mature theoretical context).

Hans Reichenbach

What Reichbach does not say, but which we can extrapolate from his distinction, is that there are both ontogenetic and phylogenetic orders of discovery. The individual’s order of discovery may well differ from the order of discovery chronicled as “firsts” in the history of science. There may also be individual and social orders of justification — ideally there would not be, since this would imply multiple theoretical contexts, and even a personal theoretical context, but we must at least acknowledge the possibility.

With these references in mind consider again my Twitter aphorism again:

The natural history of non-temporal transcendencies is the history of their epistemic order in human knowledge.

While what Husserl called nontemporal transcendencies have no “history” of their own, no development or evolution, they do however have a human history in the order in which they have been grasped by human minds, and then in the forms in which they have been sedimented in human cultures. Moreover, their presentation in a derived sense exhibits characteristic forms of order, and among these forms of order are the order of discovery and the order of justification.

Given what I recently wrote about the problem of other minds in The Eye of the Other, an obvious generalization of the above would be to formulate the same free of anthropic bias (to the extent that this is possible), thus:

The natural history of non-temporal transcendencies is the history of their genetic order in the epistemic frameworks of sentient beings.

Any sentient being capable of cognizing a non-temporal transcendency (i.e., thinking abstractly about an idea) constitutes an instance in the natural history of ideas, whether that instance of cognition is human cognition, another terrestrial species, or some non-terrestrial species. In this way, we understand that ideas may be mirrored in the consciousness of many different peoples. Under the aspect of the plurality of conscious minds, the natural history of ideas takes on a new and far more complex aspect.

If we could plot the natural history of ideas (i.e., the derivative appearance of non-temporal transcendencies in cognition of sentient beings of any species whatever) on a graph, I think that this would go a long way toward formulating a science of civilization, since civilization is founded on ideas, albeit ideas that are always found in their implemented form. Mapping the emergence of ideas in a wide variety of diverse civilizations may even suggest empirical generalizations, and from empirical generalizations laws could be formulated and predictions made.

The more research we are able to do in the natural history of ideas (possibly one day extended by the technology of a spacefaring civilization), the more likely we are to find unusual or unexpected instantiations of an idea. There are likely to be some very interesting exceptions to the rule. At the same time, a large body of research could eventually establish some norms for particular classes of civilizations and how these relate to each other. The Kardashev scale is perhaps the first step in this direction.

We might even formulate quantitative concepts of civilization into a graphic representation analogous to the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, which in its simplicity reveals the “main sequence” of stars by considering only the variables of luminosity and surface temperature. We may discover that there is a “main sequence” of civilizations, and perhaps this civilizational “main sequence” corresponds to the macro-historical sequence of humanity thus far — nomadism, followed by settled agriculturalism, followed by settled industrialism. I suspect that we will always find that settled agriculturalism is the civilizational prerequisite for the emergence of industrial-technological civilization.

Michio Kaku, in his book Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100, suggests a quantitative measure of civilization based on the Kardashev scale and Carl Sagan’s information processing typology. While Kaku’s thought remains on a primarily classificatory or typological level, we could easily plot a civilization’s energy use (or energy flows, if you prefer) on one axis of a graph and its information processing ability on the other axis of a graph and come up with a quantitative presentation of civilization typologies. We would plot known earth civilizations on such a graph, but we wouldn’t really get all that far considering only earth civilizations. Ideally we would want to plot as diverse a set of civilizations as we plot diverse stars from all over the universe on the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram.

It could also be observed that, in the same circumstances as stated above, in the far future of a human spacefaring civilization, that human beings (or their successor species) will also gather an enormous amount of information about the universe, and possibly also the multiverse (should the world reveal itself to be more than that which can be seen with contemporary technology). No doubt many strange and wonderful things will be discovered. But we have sciences that are capable of comprehending such things. Extended conceptions of astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology will be able to include within their growing bodies of knowledge every outlandish natural phenomenon that we might chance to encounter in the wider universe, but there is nothing, either in a present form or in an inchoate extended form, that can do this for civilization. There is no science of civilization at present, or, at least, nothing worthy of the name.

We could formulate a science of civilization exclusively on the basis of civilizations on the earth — it could be argued that this is what Toynbee attempted to do — although this would be anthropically biased and not as valuable as a future science of civilization that could draw upon the data of many different civilizations on many different planets. While we are on the verge today of just being able to glimpse other planets around other stars, it will be some time yet before we are able to glimpse other civilizations, if there are any.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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I dreamed a dream…

10 March 2011


Plate 43 of Goya’s Los Caprichos series of etchings: ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.’

Last Saturday night I had a stomach ache when I went to bed. As a result, I tossed and turned, sleeping fitfully, and when I did sleep I dreamed vividly. This is unusual for me. I rarely remember my dreams. This is more or less a choice. I find the irrationality of dreams irritating, so I have made no attempt to remember or cultivate them in my life. As a result, my dream life has withered. (Everyone knows that the more time you spend trying to remember your dreams, or even cultivating them by keeping a dream journal, the more likely you are to recall them. The opposite is also true.) When I sleep, I usually disappear into oblivion until I wake; my rupture with the world is complete and absolute. It therefore takes a relatively powerful dream to break through my benign neglect of the dream world.

For me, even more rare than a dream is a dream that is philosophically significant. I have had a few philosophically interesting dreams in my life, but only a handful in total. Nevertheless, I know it from my limited experience to be a fascinating experience. There is a famous story that English philosopher G. E. Moore (a friend and contemporary of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein) had a dream in which he was unable to distinguish tables from propositions. Since G. E. Moore is known for his “common sense” philosophy, one can understand how disturbing such a dream might have been.

My philosophical dream that occurred sometime between Saturday night and Sunday morning did, in a way, concern itself with propositions, but only indirectly — it didn’t involve mistaking propositions (abstract objects) for anything else or mistaking tables (concrete objects) for anything else (much less each other). What I did experience in my dream was a kind of experience — experience without language, as though I were living in the world of our pre-linguistic ancestors.

In my dream I can recall encountering objects in all of the ordinary ways that we encounter objects in our experience, but primarily seeing them. I moved through a world of objects, and in my dream I had no words whatsoever to describe these objects, but I knew what they were, and I had definite feelings toward them (for example, feelings of desire or avoidance), and perhaps it could even be said that I had ideas of these ordinary objects, but the world of this particular dream was most definitely a pre-linguistic or non-linguistic world. Within the dream my experience of the world was utterly unmediated by language or the concepts institutionalized in language. For me this was a unique experience, and quite different from anything I have experienced previously either in dreams or in waking life. Perhaps dreams of non-linguistic experience are common, but I am unaware of this since I have made no study of dreams.

I began thinking of this dream as soon as I woke up — the power of the dreamed experience stayed with me for some time, and though I took no notes at the time I can still recall it several days later –and I immediately realized that there is an established terminology in phenomenology for such experience: prepredicative experience. So I dreamed prepredicatively.

The term “prepredicative” is introduced in Husserl’s Experience and Judgment: Investigations in a Genealogy of Logic. This was actually a manuscript assembled by Ludwig Landgrebe from Husserl’s manuscripts, though under Husserl’s direction while the latter was still alive. In his Introduction Landgrebe called the book, “a collaboration of a wholly unique kind” (p. 7).

Throughout his philosophical career, Husserl bent every effort to try to get to the experience itself without any mediation. An obvious corollary of this philosophical project was to get at experience, including the fundamental and constitutive experiences of logic, without recourse to language or even to the concepts employed in language. One can see this quest for unmediated experience as Quixotic yet doomed, or as simply foolish. There are few in the Anglo-American tradition today that even believe anything like this is possible. Most philosophers today believe that they have “seen through” any and all attempts to get at “pure experience” (which was what William James called it).

It is actually quite difficult to pluck out a good quote from Husserl that perfectly expresses his position in a pithy aphorism. Husserl does have some pithy aphorisms — like to the things themselves — but these are few and far between. For the most part, reading Husserl is a lot like reading medieval logicians like Ockham and Buridan: you have to put in several years of study before you can even understand what he is getting at, and why it is so difficult for him to express what he is getting at in clear and concise language. Anyway, for a flavor of Husserl’s ruminations on the prepredicative, consider the following:

“An object, as the possible substrate of a judgment, can be self-evidently given without having to be judged about in a predicative judgment. On the other hand, a self-evident predicative judgment concerning this object is not possible unless the object itself is given with self-evidence. For judgments of experience, this is, to begin with, nothing astonishing; indeed, in this case we seem only to be expressing a truism with the allusion to the founding of predicative self-evidence on the prepredicative. But the return to objective, prepredicative self-evidence obtains its proper emphasis and full significance only with the stipulation that this relation of founding concerns not only judgments grounded in experience but every self-evident predicative judgment in general, and therewith also the judgments of the logician himself, with their apodictic self-evidence, which, after all, make the claim of being valid ‘in themselves,’ i.e., regardless of their possible application to a determinate range of substrates.”

Edmund Husserl, Experience and Judgment: Investigations in a Genealogy of Logic, revised and edited by Ludwig Landgrebe, translated by James S. Churchill and Karl Ameriks, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1973, p. 20, emphasis in original

Now that this definitive quote from Husserl has cleared matters up, we can move on.

I consider my dream to be a sufficient thought experiment to prove to me for my own purposes that prepredicative experience is in fact possible. This is definitely an odd claim for me to make. Most if not all thought experiments are based on conscious intentions to think in a certain way about certain things. I cannot tell anyone except a lucid dreamer (and I have never myself experienced lucid dreams) to try this thought experiment, so it is not that kind of experiment that admits of repetition and independent confirmation. Nevertheless, I have experienced it myself and now “feel it in my bones.” While dream evidence (which sounds frighteningly like “spectral evidence” ) is not science, it is philosophy, at least in so far as I understand the openness of philosophical inquiry to any method whatsoever.

Moreover, I will make the further and perhaps even more tenuous claim that my dream of prepredicative experience is just about as close as someone from our age can come to experiencing the pre-linguistic world of our early ancestors, which would also have been innocent of those concepts that were built up with the use of language over the past fifty thousand years or so since anatomical modernity made speech possible and an ordinary part of human experience.

At this point in my exposition I am likely to lose even sympathetic phenomenologists, since there is a strong resistance among those who take up philosophical questions in this spirit with identifying ideas or experiences with particular historical instantiations. This resistance has a long, complex, and interesting history. Both Frege, the ancestor of analytical Anglo-American philosophy, and Husserl, and ancestor of continental philosophy, are part of this story.

Frege was dead-set against confusing the origins of things for the things themselves, and especially for confusing logic with any natural history of how logic came about in human experience. His writings frequently contain passages like the following:

“While the mathematician defines objects, concepts, and relations, the psychological logician is spying upon the origin and evolution of ideas, and to him at bottom the mathematician’s defining can only appear foolish because it does not reproduce the essence of ideation. ”

Gottlob Frege, The Basic Laws of Arithmetic: Exposition of the System, p. 24

This position consistently rejected by Frege is sometimes called psychologism, or logical psychologism. The early Husserl had psychologistic tendencies, but Frege wrote a devastating review of Husserl’s book Philosophy of Arithmetic, and Husserl henceforth explicitly repudiated logical psychologism. J. N. Mohanty wrote an entire book, Husserl and Frege, to prove that Husserl was moving in this direction anyway and that Frege did not “convert” Husserl to anti-psychologism, but it seems clear to me that Frege, at least at this point, had a decisive influence on Husserl.

Frege also wrote the following in a posthumously published manuscript:

“‘2 times 2 is 4’ is true and will continue to be so even if, as a result of Darwinian evolution, human beings were to come to assert that 2 times 2 is 5. Every truth is eternal and independent of being thought by anyone and of the psychological make-up of anyone thinking it.”

Gottlob Frege, “17 Key Sentences on Logic” in Posthumous Writings, University of Chicago Press, 1979, p. 174

I do not disagree with Frege, and I am not suggesting a psychologistic approach to logic, or even a more vague psychologistic orientation of thought, but because of my dreamed experience I have come to think that it is possible to speak meaningfully of experience independent of language and the infrastructure of concepts made possible by language. It therefore also seems entirely reasonable to me that say that we might be able to speak meaningfully of the genesis of language and language-dependent concepts from a pre-linguistic stage of human experience. Moreover, I will assert that under certain (admittedly unusual) circumstances, it is possible for those of us living long after the introduction of language to experience something analogous to the experiences our ancestors prior to language.

None of this strikes me as particularly controversial, much less heretical, but I know the history of these ideas well enough to know why such claims — especially when interpreted unsympathetically — could be construed as controversial. That is why I have filled in a little more background of the intellectual history than I do in most posts. It would be easy to devote a weighty volume, indeed several volumes, to an exposition of this idea, why it is controversial, and how it is to be understood in a way that does not contradiction the clarifications of Frege and Husserl, with which I have no issue. Perhaps if I live long enough I may eventually write those volumes. In the meantime, I wanted to set down the idea before I forgot it.

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Monteverdi's ethereally beautiful music has been an inspiration for me to consider the ontological status of his music.

The formality of music and the aesthetic dimension of mathematics have long been parallel themes. There are many wonderful quotes from the literature of music to this effect. I quoted several of my favorites in Algorithms of Ecstasy, which I encourage the curious reader to peruse.

Bach's Die Kunst der Fuge.

I have long thought that Die Kunst der Fuge is not unlike L’Art de Penser. Music is a formal language, but it is also more than this. I see in both music and mathematics the same dialectic of the formal and the informal. The sensuousness of music blinds many to its formal elements. When Schopenhauer said that music is the pure language of the will, unmediated by representation, free of the forms which dominate the other arts, he obviously was not thinking of the formal rules of composition. The industriousness with which Bach develops and exploits a theme through counterpoint, inversion, retrograde, and retrograde-inversion has more to do with the intellect than with the will. A more recent example of composition as an intellectual exercise is afforded by serialism.

In contrast to the sensuality of music that often blinds us to its formal elements, the abstractness of mathematics blinds many to its non-formal, intuitive elements; although, for example, axiomatics (a distinctively mathematical mode of thought at least since Euclid) forces us to recognize the intuitive foundations of any mathematical theory right from the start, with its primitive terms, axioms, and rules of inference which must be accepted in order to begin. However, after this intuitive foundation, all that follows is formal, and it is the formality of the axiomatic method which is widely understood to be it distinctive contribution to mathematical thought.

Euclid provided the model of formal thought with his axiomatization of geometry.

The Greeks were eminently suited to unfold formal reasoning to the world, given their preoccupation with the virtues of limitation, finitude, order—peras. Indeed, those qualities which shared the right side of the Pythagorean table of opposites with peras—all that is sharply and clearly defined—represent all of the properties upon which mature formal systems have converged. When logical thought at long last began to catch up with logical practices Frege gave eloquent expression to these same concepts necessary to the development of formalism: “rigour of proof, precise delimitation of extent of validity, and as a means to this, sharp definition of concepts.” (Frege, Foundations of Arithmetic, § 1) While intended as an assertion of the demands of formal thinking, it could also serve as a formalist aesthetic manifesto.

If Frege had been interested in aesthetics he could have written the manifesto of the formalists.

Both mathematics and music are developed with the same eye to aesthetic purity, and as such they stand, more than many human endeavors, outside the causal order, a little bit outside the world, outside existence. Thus it ought to be natural to approach mathematics phenomenologically, suspending the world through the epoché, disregarding existence. And yet I have not read anything which considers what I think are the genuine issues of a phenomenological philosophy of mathematics. The heavily ontological nature of most contemporary discussions in the philosophy of mathematics — Are numbers objects? Do they exist? etc. — is a preoccupation which prevents a phenomenological perspective from being heard.

Edmund Husserl was no more interested in aesthetics than Frege, though there are potential applications of phenomenology here as elsewhere.

Suppose we interpret the epoché as the suspension of any consideration of existence, that the natural standpoint naively assumes the existence of familiar objects and these unthinking judgements are precisely those which need to be set aside: what then remains of today’s ontological philosophy of mathematics? Very little, I think. Let us approach a phenomenological philosophy of mathematics taking the epoché seriously, and defining it in some way which does not involve us in disputes as to the possibility of having some kind or other of subjective experience (i.e., we need to avoid allowing the epoché itself to be a problem). By this I mean that we need some kind of formal or quantifiable definition of the epoché, and here I will simply take it as ruling out any reference to existence. Thus traditionally troublesome issues in the philosophy of mathematics, such as whether sets exist, are ruled out from the beginning. The question which has so vexed formulations of the axiom of choice — whether there exists a set which consists of an infinite number of members, each element taken out of an infinite number of sets — cannot even be a question in a phenomenological context.

I think the above suggests a fresh way of thinking about mathematics. Thus by the method of the phenomenological epoché we arrive at a position not unlike that of early analytical philosophy which simply ruled out large classes of traditional philosophical questions by finding them meaningless. (And we should keep in mind in this context the close association of early analytical philosophy with logicism.)

As unlikely as it may seem, this line of thought may have applications to music as well. Recently in Another Kind of Auditor I mentioned my enjoyment of and experience of late medieval and early renaissance vocal polyphony, specifically in relation to Monteverdi’s madrigals. I recently found an amusing quote that demonstrates apparently incommensurable differences in taste:

“The vigor of the new age was not found everywhere. Music, still lost in the blurry mists of the Dark Ages, was a Renaissance laggard; the motets, pslams, and Masses heard each Sabbath — many of them by Josquin des Pres of Flanders, the most celebrated composer of his day — fall dissonantly on the ears of those familiar with the soaring orchestral works which would captivate Europe in the centuries ahead, a reminder that in some respects one age will forever remain inscrutable to others.” (William Manchester, A World Lit Only by Fire, p. 88)

William Manchester judges this music to be “laggard” while I consider it to be one of the high points of civilization, even a symbol of civilization. Well, we all know the old Latin line, de gustibus non est disputandum. In any case, in Another Kind of Auditor I made the claim that this music that I love, and that William Manchester believes to be “laggard,” refuses any participation of the listener. I further expanded on this observation:

One cannot “sing along” with a Monteverdi madrigal. One cannot even tap one’s toe in time to the music, or sway one’s body to the rhythm. Such gestures are futile and inappropriate. One must listen only. One must become an ear, nothing but an ear — a pure auditor. Monteverdi’s madrigals hold the auditor at a distance even while enveloping him in layers of vocal textures.

I could have said that Monteverdi’s late madrigals lack any instrumentality whatsoever. There is nothing that we can do with them, no “purpose” (in the vulgar sense) to which they can be used. With such music there is a complete absence of readiness-to-hand (to employ a Heideggerian turn of phrase — and hopefully more on this at a later date).

Another way to formulate this unique character of the music would be to say that the character of the music itself forces the auditor into an intellectual position not unlike the phenomenological epoché. Indeed, the music itself could be taken as a method of the epoché, a particularly systematic and thorough method for attaining to a consciousness in which the music that one hears “disappears” in terms of any utilitarian or instrumental presence and becomes something that can only be beheld. To hear such music is to forget the name of the thing one hears.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Riding a Horse

8 May 2009


Friday morning

First of all, I am not a horseman. I have ridden horses previously — several of them — but prior to my current stay at the Hacienda Zuleta I had not been on a horse since 1987, and during that last horse ride (in Hell’s Canyon, between Oregon and Idaho) I was thrown clear of the saddle and landed on the ground with my head a few feet away from a large rock. While being thrown was unpleasant, I immediately realized how fortunate I was in this instance; it could have been much worse for me.

Friday's Ride

Fortunately, my equestrian experience at the Hacienda Zuleta has not involved any incident of comparable danger. Perhaps the greatest danger I have had to face is the equatorial sun at high altitude. Despite using a significant amount of strong sunblock, my neck got very red today. (Earlier in the trip I missed a spot when applying sunscreen and I now have one small sunburned patch on my right elbow.)

Imbabura countryside

Since I am not a regular rider of horses, and not an enthusiast of horse riding (and therefore woefully ignorant of the entire process), it is essentially a new experience for me, and that is a good thing, because there is much to be learned from new experiences. For example, I learned something about my own anatomy. Apparently, there is a strap of muscle on both sides, left and right, and goes directly under the pelvic bone. When you ride a horse, this muscle is pinched between the pelvic bone and the saddle. In order to ride with a minimum of comfort, this muscle must be kept tight. The problem is, ordinary activity in industrialized society does not exercise this muscle, and trying to keep an out of shape muscle tight for an extended period of time leads to soreness. But if a person were to ride every day for a couple of weeks, I have no doubt that the appropriate muscles would tighten up and one would be fine. For the time being, I can walk a horse passably, but anything more (trot, canter, gallop, etc.) is uncomfortable.

Hacienda Zuleta from above

But I learned much more than this from my horseback riding experience. Riding a horse puts one in direct touch with history, as the greater part of human history was made on horseback. To ride is to understand the conditions of life of our ancestors. George Washington and Simon Bolivar, for example, were both admired for their ability to spend extended periods of time in the saddle. Horseback riding is like re-enacting history on a small scale, i.e., it is a kind of experimental archaeology. One is better able to identify with episodes in the past if one has a personal experience of how those episodes took place.

Volcan Cayambe

When personally acquainted with the difficulties of riding a horse, reflecting upon horsemanship in war gives one a new degree of appreciation of the training and conditioning, as well as the knowledge and expertise, of going to battle on horseback. It is difficult for me to imagine being on a horse at a full run, covered in about a hundred pounds of armor, carrying a lance, and attempting to spear someone similarly outfitted headed straight for you and attempting to kill you by similar means. It would take a lifetime of training to become proficient at this, and with this highly trained and specialized military asset, no mob of untrained peasants in an uprising could hope to stand against such force. When we read in a history book that a peasant rebellion was put down “brutally” (a term not infrequently employed), one must keep in mind the image of farm workers, only accustomed to the plow, going up against men who spent their life training to fight under conditions of great difficulty. History becomes more comprehensible in this way.


One of my favorite passages in Husserl, and one to which I find myself returning time and again, is from section 28 of Ideas I: “The arithmetical world is there for me only if, and as long as, I am in the arithmetical attitude.” In later editions Husserl’s marginalia extended this substantially: “The arithmetical world is there for me only when I have studied arithmetic, when I have systematically formed arithmetical ideas, when I have looked into it and thereby acquired something permanent with a universal horizon.” What is powerful in this idea is that it is true not only for mathematics, or not only for the formal sciences or absract theoretical constructions, but for any world whatever. I could just a well say that, “The equestrian world is there for me only if, and as long as, I am in the equestrian attitude.” Or, “The equestian world is there for me only when I have studied horemanship, and I have systematically practiced equestrian sports, when I have extended my equestrian experience and acquired something of permanence.”

Friday evening

New experiences open up new worlds for us. This is as true of horsemanship or learning a new language (the examples on my mind from today’s experiences) as for mathematics (Husserl’s example from Ideas I). The turning toward a given phenomenon, and especially its cultivation, opens new worlds of experience to one so turned toward some aspect of the world — especially some novel aspect of the world, and its pursuit through cultivation, eventually converging on familiarity. My brief re-acquaintance with horseback riding, as well as having my guide, Antonio, teach me some phrases in Quechua, drove this point home to me in a personal way. Without that turning toward a given aspect of the world, we remain blind to it.

Zuleta gateway

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Grand Strategy Annex

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A New Bogey Man: Market Fundamentalism

The purveyors of economic ressentiment have introduced a novel term of abuse — market fundamentalism. We are to understand that the ills that have been with us since the dawn of civilization — poverty, war, exploitation, injustice, inter alia — so recently credited to globalization and other bogey men, are now to be laid at the door of market fundamentalism. Part of the abuse heaped upon market fundamentalism can be put to hardships following upon the business cycle in contraction (such criticism is muted during periods of expansion), part to perennial discontent on the political left, and part to the widespread belief in Europe that they have transcended the crude capitalism that brought them to their current enviable economic success.

If by market fundamentalism we mean an economic system in which market forces are allowed to function with a minimum of interference from government regulation and centralized economic planning, then the closer we approximate market fundamentalism, the more rapidly the market will be able to accommodate changed conditions, and the smoother the transition will be in times of dramatic economic change. This does not mean that a dramatic economic disruption can be smooth in an absolute sense, only that it will be less disruptive and less prolonged than if well-intentioned intervention prevents market forces from operating. The more vigorously we try to delay the market’s day of reckoning, the more brutal the reckoning will be when it arrives.

Marx Knew Better

If we attempt to fix industrial, commercial, and financial arrangements in a manner that reflects the economic reality of one particular moment in history, as soon as that moment passes the fixed arrangements cease to function and there is not only an economic reckoning, but a potentially disastrous reckoning on the part of a society that deluded itself into believing that it could define the terms of its own participation in History. Marx knew better. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon he wrote, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” (1852)

"History does nothing; it does not possess immense riches, it does not fight battles. It is men, real, living, who do all this." Hence the role of individual intiative and self-interest, thought Marx didn't see it this way.

Marx: "History does nothing; it does not possess immense riches, it does not fight battles. It is men, real, living, who do all this." Hence the role of individual initiative and self-interest, thought Marx didn't see it this way.

The attempt to regulate our way out of market adjustments to prevailing conditions will foster precisely the catastrophic economic crises that Marx predicted, and if the response to such crises is more regulation, the severity of these crises will increase and perhaps even lead to a generalized economic crisis. Moreover, the institutions that manage financial crises on behalf of nation-states (or, at least, which attempt to manage financial crises) must be counted along with the industries they regulate as part of the economic system (not least due to regulatory capture). They, too, must be allowed to fail. If they are ineffective, they will be swept away as certainly as a failing industry.

Time and Tide

Time and tide, we are told, wait for no man. The business cycle is a tide, and it is no respecter to persons or nations but ebbs and floods according to market forces. Marx thought he could prove that the crises of industrialization that follow from the business cycle would increase in severity until the system of capitalism destroyed itself and was superseded by communism. Marx’s vision was somewhat myopic in this respect. Compared to the Great Depression of the first half of the twentieth century and the Great Inflation of the second half of the twentieth century, our financial crises are, in general, less severe than those of the past. We have, quite simply, gotten better at managing the business cycle.

The business cycle is the concrete embodiment of what Schumpeter famously called creative destruction. The upswing of the business cycle is the creative phase; the downside of the business cycle is the destructive phase. Let us not mince our words: the destructive phase of creative destruction can be excruciatingly painful. Industries are destroyed, careers are ruined, families suffer and individuals are reduced to despair.

Machiavelli Knew Better

The ugly truth of capitalism is that obsolete and decrepit industries must be ruined, and the uglier truth is that all who invested in or are employed by doomed industries will be ruined along with them. From the ashes of the ruins will rise the Phoenix of a transmogrified economy, but those who have been ruined will not be able to derive much hope or enjoyment from the perspective of their drastically reduced circumstances. This rude awakening to what the market can do if it turns against you is perhaps more than many can bear. Machiavelli claimed that a man would sooner forgive the execution of his father than the loss of his patrimony.

"...when it is necessary for a prince to proceed against the life of someone, he must do it on proper justification and for manifest cause, but above all things he must keep his hands off the property of others, because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony." The Prince, Chap. XVII

"...when it is necessary for a prince to proceed against the life of someone, he must do it on proper justification and for manifest cause, but above all things he must keep his hands off the property of others, because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony." The Prince, Chap. XVII

Most advanced industrialized economies have a social welfare net, the intention of which is to catch those who have been ruined and to save them from the most abject poverty. This, however, is cold comfort to those who have once experienced affluence. To be saved from starvation and homelessness is a profoundly humiliating experience to those who have been more accustomed to handing out charity rather than receiving it.

We might call these sad souls financial exiles, as their condition is analogous to the ancient punishment of exile, the poignancy of which Ovid so eloquently attested. Financial exiles retain their lives, their families, their citizenship, and a few tokens of their former affluent lives, but they have come down in the world abruptly, and are unlikely to again enjoy the considerable rewards of financial success.

Dreams of a Post-Industrial Twilight

If it were the case that all the political entities in the world could unanimously agree to desist from the ruthless ways of capitalism, and the great globe of the earth could be handed over whole to collectivist cooperation, the entire internationalism system could quietly allow itself to slip into a long, post-industrial twilight, in which each sector of society gets to keep the privileges and standards of living of the immediately previous generation by preserving the economic arrangements of that generation in the economic equivalent of a glass case, like a museum piece. However, we already know this not to be the case.

Whatever the absurdities of collectivist rhetoric that may come from the leaders of Russia and China, it is evident to the most cursory examination that these are nation-states bent upon economic dominance at any cost. Capitalism, by any other name, is just as ruthless. Whether the currency of competition is technology, natural resources, armaments, population, or any other measure by which one state can gain an advantage over another, we can be certain that other nations will pursue these advantages to the best of their abilities. As a result of historical accident, the West currently retains economic and technological advantages that can keep it from being swept aside by other powers, but this dominance could be forfeited in a single generation so that the historical accidents of our time could efface those of earlier times.

As Husserl noted in another context, though not a necessarily unrelated context, “The Dream is over.”

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“Après moi le déluge.”

Edmund Husserl: "The dream is over." In other words: “Après moi le déluge.”

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Grand Strategy Annex

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