Saturday, May 21, 2011

Essay Concerning Human Understanding Part 3

It is important to me to remember to try to imagine the spirit of inspiration and ferment in which so many men of realized and energetic humanity in the eighteenth century received the writings of Locke; not necessarily Jefferson or Franklin, the strain of attempting to enter whose singular spirits would likely throw the entire enterprise off course, but some among the largely forgotten figures, the men of leisure and enterprise who had somehow managed to obtain good enough schooling to retain a lively interest in humanistic developments throughout life, the diffusion of which characters was so crucial to the history of that era. In short, I need to keep in the front of my mind the remembrance that the writings of this particular author set some of the most interestingly developed and ideally educated men found in all of history to consider and write long interpretations and opinions of his arguments, largely as personal correspondence, and to regard the material in a manner as commensurate with this history as possible.

This is off-topic, but I came across this 1883 passage from Henry James the other day regarding Oxford, which he frequently lamented his ill-fortune at not having been able to attend in his youth (he did go to Harvard, but he considered it, like the rest of America, to be crude, modern, devoid of poetry, tradition, meaning, etc. He wrote of his years there as if they constituted a several years quarantine from beauty and civilization that scarred him for life):

"(Oxford) typifies...the union of science and sense--of aspiration and ease. A German university gives a greater impression of science, and an English country house or an Italian villa a greater impression of idle enjoyment; but in these cases, on the one side, knowledge is too rugged, and on the other, satisfaction is too trivial. Oxford lends sweetness to labour and dignity to leisure."

I cannot testify as to whether this is an accurate assessment of Oxford in 1883 or not, but there is much in this that corresponds with my own ideas of what school should ideally be like which I have been having some trouble expressing, ideas which are very much out of fashion, to say the least. The last sentence, particularly the bit about 'sweetness' captures well what I often have perceived to be missing from many contemporary attitudes towards learning and accomplishment, which Henry James, needless to say, would have found beyond barbaric. Not that anyone can be expected to care much what he said in 2011, he being a fellow of extreme privilege for whom having to attend Harvard College (where his brother, incidentally, now probably regarded as the greater of the two, was on the faculty for most of his career) ranked as a major calamity in his life. He did think a great deal about the cultivation of the mind for reasons other than professional advancement, it was perhaps the most important consideration in the world to him, and I think he had many good ideas where it was concerned, even if he was not able to, or interested in, making their development applicable to the needs of the economy.

Henry James of course is not the best role model for the likes of me. It was not imperative on him to have a career as a means of sustaining his physical existence in the way that it is for most people. I still seem somehow to think of myself as a man of leisure, though I have not had more than two consecutive weeks off from paid labor since 1997. I still haven't any idea what practicable career that is both necessary, realistic of attainment, and which would identify me as belonging in some way to the more generally educated class of people I might have liked to have pursued. I have been working in the health care industry for a long time and one cannot help but observe the gulf in status and general social presentableness between the actual MDs and the other medically trained professionals (The administrators/business class type people in the organization are a whole other category, which I cannot relate to at all however). I probably did not have the focus to complete the training properly, but I suppose at this point I can see myself getting up every day and being a doctor, whereas I still cannot envision myself doing most regular high-paying respectable jobs that I am aware of. People warned me all my life that I needed to be serious about this, so I cannot complain that nobody explained the hard cruel realities of the world to me, but it just doesn't sink in when you're 25--let alone 18--and you think you still have some life in you on a modestly grand scale and people are badgering you to become an accountant. I thought I had enough general talent that I could eventually make my way into the life and the circles where I would recognize myself as belonging and making the best use of my abilities. I don't really think that has happened, but as it still is not clear to me what exactly I should have done to produce a more desirable outcome, this particular aspect of my sluggishness (apart from the sluggishness itself) does not bother me that much.

The will is determined mainly by uneasiness. This is something I picked up from the reading. It would explain in great part the persistence with which I pursue my mainly fruitless endeavors, such as this site.

From the section "Idea of Power": "...the will being the power of directing our operative faculties to some action, for some end, cannot at any time be moved towards what is judged at that time unattainable..." This would explain why nerds never try to bird-dog hot chicks.

"God Almighty himself is under the necessity of being happy; and the more any intelligent being is so, the nearer its approach to infinite perfection and happiness." I.e., free will is overrated in the grand scheme.

"...we should take pains to suit the relish of our minds to the true intrinsic good or ill that is in things; and not permit a...possible great and weighty good to slip out of our thoughts, without leaving any...desire of itself there, till...we have formed appetites in our minds suitable to it, and made ourselves uneasy in the want of it..." The quotation is rather unwieldy, but I think it contains good advice.

Torture on the rack is offered as an example as a cause of uneasiness in the will. I thought it was funny at the time. Possibilities for humor can be rare in philosophy books.

Montaigne is quoted in the notes on numerous instances, which was also a source of momentary excitement. This one struck me as particularly elegant: "Si la douleur de teste nous venait avant l'ivresse, nous nous garderions de trop boire; mais la volupte', pour nous tromper, marche devant, et nous cache sa suite." ("If the unhappiness of the result came to us before the drunken state, we would keep from drinking too much; but the pleasure, in order to deceive us, walks before us, and hides from us what follows.")

After I had an inconclusive grapple with the wager as regards eternal happiness that men who determine to be good are said to make, I quickly moved on to the section "Our Complex Ideas of Substances". Of these, "Powers therefore justly make a great part". What a thing does is what it is. This pretty much applies to all of life as far as it is lived by most people.

"...were our senses altered, and made much quicker and acuter, the appearance and outward scheme of things would have quite another face to us; and, I am apt to think, would be inconsistent with our being, or at least wellbeing, in this part of the universe which we inhabit." I seemed to think that the expansion of modern knowledge, including the increased possibilities of body modification/enhancement, might offer some kind of test of this statement. But under soberer consideration I have reverted to the opinion that these changes in the modern condition are cosmetic and trivial in comparison with the conception of the original sentiment.

Black swans apparently had not been discovered in 1690. (There is a passage in the section on ideas of substances where among the characteristics identified with the word "swan" was whiteness of color. A footnote explains that "Black swans have since been found").

I like the way this is put. It strikes me as elegant:

"For putting together the ideas of thinking and willing, or the power of moving or quieting corporeal motion, joined to substance, of which we have no distinct idea, we have the idea of an immaterial spirit; and by putting together the ideas of coherent solid parts, and a power of being moved, joined with substance, of which likewise we have no positive idea, we have the idea of matter."

" seems probable to me, that the simple ideas we receive from sensation and reflection are the boundaries of our thoughts; beyond which the mind, whatever efforts it would make, is not able to advance one jot; nor can it make any discoveries, when it would pry into the nature and hidden causes of those ideas." According to the notes, this is the main thesis of the Essay. It seems intuitively wrong, since some people anyway must have the ability to push beyond existing boundaries. Perhaps he is saying that even these expansions of existing ideas are dependent on this basic procedure however, and that we are not capable of generating ideas via different means.

"The ideas, then, of relations, are capable at least of being more perfect and distinct in our minds than those of substances." Ideas of substances would be truer and deeper knowledge however.

"But the sun and stars, though they have outlasted several generations of men, we call not old, because we do not know what period God hath set to that sort of beings." More scientific improvements.

I wish I had more time to think and write about these various things that I like. I suppose I do neither well, but I used frequently to feel that I did them well, which is something I rarely feel when doing anything else.

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