Sunday, July 31, 2011

Going to Close Out John Locke (#6)

Book IV, Chap. XVI ("Degrees of Assent"). There is a section on the difficulty of changing or giving up one's opinion (try doing this on the internet), as well as an observation about the most thoroughly instructed people being less imperious towards others, which latter argument however I think, speaking as a less thoroughly instructed person, is dubious. The older I get, the more I am inclined to think the real reason it is difficult for people to change their opinions about anything is less stubbornness than because they no longer trust their brains' capacity to perceive any ideas, especially new ones, with the degree of clarity and totality needed to embrace an understanding of existence completely opposite to what has informed them previously, however airtight the arguments in its favor are laid not. I certainly cannot.

Locke on the subject of miracles (quotation from a footnote, from a work called Discourse on Miracles): "A miracle I take to be a sensible operation, which being above the comprehension of the spectator, and in his opinion contrary to the established course of nature, is taken by him to be divine." This seems a reasonable definition, or did to me at the time I read it. Now I think it is not solid enough, unless "the spectator" refers to the entirety of humanity.

This chapter closes with the assertion that faith was "nothing else but an assent founded on the highest reason", which is complemented in the notes by a quote attributed to Coleridge ("Christian faith is the perfection of human intelligence"). Would that it were that easy, "easy" striking me here as an ugly thought, in the face of these fine and very beautiful sentiments. I mean this sincerely, and I even believe it is possible that religious faith may in fact be the perfection of human intelligence, especially if ultimate 'truth' is either unknowable or fails to rise above what the most refined minds would consider to be prosaic. Or perhaps these are two of those deceptive statements, at which the naive reader, reassured perhaps, or at least satisfied that he grasps the author's intent, is content to stop considering the matter, while the real intent of the words lies behind this apparent meaning. Or at least one hopes so.

Book IV, Chap XVII ("Reason"): "Secondly, another way that men ordinarily use to drive others, and force them to submit their judgements, and receive the opinion in debate, is to require the adversary to admit what they allege as proof, or to assign a better. And this I call argumentum ad ignorantiam". This is an excellent point.

Book IV, Chap. XIX ("Enthusiasm"): "Hence we see, that, in all ages, men in whom melancholy has mixed with devotion, or whose conceit of themselves has raised them into an opinion of a greater familiarity with God, and a nearer admittance to his favour than is afforded to others, have often flattered themselves with a persuasion of an immediate intercourse with the Deity, and frequent communications from the Divine Spirit." Hmm...No, it is just that I would have had a lot of these traits I'm sure if I had lived in that age.

Book IV, Chap XX ("Wrong Assent, or Error") "Take an intelligent Romanist, that, from the first dawning of any notions in his understanding, hath had this principle constantly inculcated, viz. that he must believe as the church...believes, or that the pope is infallible, and this he never so much as heard questioned, till at forty or fifty years is he prepared easily to swallow, not only against all probability, but even the clear evidence of his senses, the doctrine of transubstantiation? This principle has such an influence on his mind, that he will believe that to be flesh which he sees to be bread." The further we move from an intellectual universe where Anglo-Saxon antipathies toward Catholic doctrine and culture constitute one of the primary energies and points of contention--and we seem to have gone a long way down that road just in the last 25 years--the more passages like this, which are to be found all through the major strains of English literature and even philosophical writings, from the Elizabethans up to World War I at least, will serve to call into question the seriousness and even cognitive abilities of the authors who fall into these kinds of traps, especially of course if their powers of reasoning are supposed to be the main basis of their fame. Questioning Catholic beliefs and their origins, or those of other systems one finds distasteful, mind you, I do not see as the problem, but rather to do so, especially as a philosopher, from an attitude that takes for granted one does so within an inherited belief system of his own that is superior without making it clear why this is so that is unacceptable.

"Tell a man passionately in love that he is jilted; bring a score of witnesses on the falsehood of his mistress, it is ten to one but three kind words of hers shall invalidate all their testimonies."

Monday, July 25, 2011

John Locke 5

Book III, Chapter X ("Abuse of Words"): "...he that will look into that sort of learned writings, will find the words there much more obscure, uncertain, and undetermined in their meaning, than they are in ordinary conversation." There are some good points in this section about idle, useless pedants, as well as something useful, which word unfortunately I can no longer make out in my scribblings, which I too often forget.

"He that hath words of any language, without distinct ideas in his mind to which he applies them, does, so far as he uses them in discourse, only make a noise without any sense or signification; not much more advanced thereby in knowledge, than he would be in learning, who had nothing in his study but the bare titles of books, without possessing the contents of them." O.K., they have me figured out.

Book III, Chapter XI ("Remedies of the Abuse of Words"): "This exactness will, perhaps, be judged very troublesome; and therefore most men will think they may be excused from settling the complex ideas of mixed modes so precisely in their minds." The "excused" is well-chosen here.

I believe I have already mentioned that the guy who wrote the footnotes is more obscure than Locke, but he must have been really bad, seeing as I felt the need to note it a second time in the course of the reading.

Book IV, Chapter I ("Of Knowledge In General"): "Nobody, I think, can deny, that Mr Newton certainly knows any proposition that he now at any time reads in his book to be true; though he has not in actual view that admirable chain of intermediate ideas whereby he at first discovered it to be true." Perhaps not the whole view, but I would guess that he had a lot of it.

Book IV, Chapter IV ("Reality of Knowledge"): "...the truth and certainty of moral discourses abstracts from the lives of men, and the existence of those virtues in the world whereof they treat: nor are Tully's Offices less true, because there is nobody in the world that exactly practises his rules, and lives up to that pattern of a virtuous man which he has given us, and which existed nowhere when he writ but in idea." Morality as an abstraction comparable to mathematics. Or art.

"...where God or any other law-maker, hath defined any moral names, there they have made the essence of that species to which that name belongs..." The influence of lawgivers and other authorities is a serious matter with Locke.

In Book IV, Chapter VII ("Of Maxims") Locke discusses unlocking and opening the "secrets of knowledge". For the most part it is all just a big secret, isn't it?

"The Schools having made disputation the touchstone of men's abilities, and the criterion of knowledge, adjudged victory to him that kept the field: and he that had the last word was concluded to have the better of the argument, if not of the cause." Someday wisdom is really going to have to learn how to project itself better.

Book IV, Chapter X ("Our Knowledge of the Existence of a God"): "If, therefore, we know there is some real being, and that nonentity cannot produce any real being, it is an evident demonstration, that from eternity there has been something; since what was not from eternity had a beginning; and what had a beginning must be produced by something else." Pretty clever, I guess. It caught me napping at first, but on a closer look you can see all the assumptions that are embedded in it.

There's a translated quote from Cicero, or as Locke refers to him, Tully, on the same subject: "What can be more sillily arrogant and misbecoming, than for a man to think that he has a mind and understanding in him, but yet in all the universe beside there is no such thing?" I believe much of this line of thinking with its fairly wild range of generalities was later clarified by Hume and perfected by Kant. Not that I would know.

Remember Aristippus, who placed happiness in bodily pleasure? I was a terrible philosophy student and would be hard pressed to name ten general principles running through the history of the pursuit if my life depended on it, but you sure will never be able to persuade me that happiness lies in bodily pleasure. That teaching I cannot seem to forget.

"Hence I think I may conclude, that morality is the proper science and business of mankind in general, several arts, conversant about several parts of nature, are the lot and private talent of particular men, for the common use of human life, and their own particular subsistence in this world." I have never developed an effective program of my own for how to live/approach life as an active agent in its course. This being after all the purpose of philosophy, I would have to say that my education was really not a success. This is besides that it is hard to participate in any kind of social intercourse requiring a decent level of thought when one does not have (or does not wish to reveal) a coherent explanation of why one's existence is playing out the way it is in any way and in what directions one might wish to direct it in the future.

Locke does not appear to be one who is especially impressed by nature (as in outside, the natural world) as something more interesting or grand than the human mind. One would have spent a lot more time grappling with it in the 17th century than we do today, and it doubtless seemed less wondrous than the possibilities of rigorous thought to the intellectuals of that time. It is a tone that I think few thinkers would take, and maybe even feel, today.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Movies 1981-2002 (Common Theme: Great Depression)

The Road to Perdition (2002)My main impressions while watching this movie:

What is the point of this story?

I'm not buying Paul Newman and Tom Hanks as ruthless gangsters, especially to the extreme they are supposed to be in this movie.

I can more easily buy Daniel Craig and Jude Law as sociopaths, I guess, though I don't get the point of their characters either.

Despite a lengthy trail of corpses and bank robberies, no police ever appear. They do not exist in this movie. The characters only have to worry about other gangsters.

It might be worth seeing just for the sets and clothes and heavily artsified 30s ambiance. If they hadn't actually gunned down a child and his mother in their own bathroom I would probably say it was definitely worth seeing.

Jennifer Jason Leigh, in the period (1931) dress and hair, looks quite a bit like my wife in this, which probably caused the scene where she is murdered with the child in cold blood to upset me more than it ordinarily would have. I know this is at least the 3rd time I have said a movie actress resembles my wife (Shirley Maclaine circa The Apartment and Sybil Seeley from the Buster Keaton movies are the other 2 I can think of off hand), but in each instance something in the resemblance was striking enough to make an impression that I thought it worthwhile to take note of.

I wondered how differently the history of cinema might have developed if the United States had not been the dominant filmmaking country during the formative years of this art. Specifically I was assuming that the genre of the super-violent gangster film would not have attained quite the place of esteem in the cinematic repertoire that it has attained, to the point that nations as disparate as Britain and Korea, who do not have much of a history of their citizens engaging in machine gun massacres and shootouts in their streets and places of public business, feel impelled to regularly make movies in which as many people are blown away by advanced weaponry in a single scene as normally die in such manner in a couple of decades in those countries.

It may be argued that my quibbles about the lack of realism in certain instances in this movie are prosaic and beside the point, that the narrative does away with these restrictions because it is really about other things. In the present case however this is where the movie, which is otherwise almost impeccably made, most falters. The departure from probability and consistency within the parameters it sets out, especially given the excessive brutality of its violence, I found to be too great. Most stories that attain a degree of cultural importance require some suspension of literal disbelief, to be sure, but the psychology of the characters has to be believable and consistent within the parameters of whatever imagined or idealized world they are inhabiting, which also necessitates the mental and emotional universe of that world being comprehensible to the audience. That did not occur to my satisfaction here.

Tarzan (1999)

In addition to the undiscriminating reviewer who overly loves TV movies, my system suffers from another critic who has caused me to suspect him or her to be in the employ of the Walt Disney Corporation, so uniformly and emphatically partial to the works of this studio he be. There are a few Disney movies that I will admit to liking, though they were all made before 1960; the artistic sensibility of the pre-1945 productions especially, middlebrow though it was, is of an entirely different order from what they seem to be able to muster lately.

This late model Tarzan, following in the train of the big 90s hits like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, wholly escaped my notice on its initial appearance. I was willing enough to like it if it had moved me to do so, but I did not see anything the least noteworthy or at all different from any other 90s Disney movie.

King of the Hill (1993)

Another movie set in the Great Depression ('33 I believe was the year in this case) which seems to have been a recurring theme with me lately, or perhaps the time is such a good one to set movies in that more of them turn up on my list than they do from other periods. While Road to Perdition was based on a comic book/graphic novel and had a more mythical atmosphere about it, this was based on a memoir by a more conventional earnest writer type (A. E. Hotchner, of whom I had not previously heard). Despite being directed by Steven Soderbergh, whom I thought was considered an A or near A-list director, having a largely recognizable if not star-studded cast, and receiving almost uniformly positive reviews, the film is still not available on DVD. (I still have a VCR, so I bought an old videotape and watched that).

The sets and props and costumes lack the calculated grandeur and overall sense of Sturm und Drang, so in keeping with the post-millenial spirit, that we got in Road to Perdition, and are more in what I would consider the 'traditional' Depression period-piece style, iron bedsteads, print dresses in muted colors, peeling wallpaper and flaking plaster, scratchy radios, dusty streets, all of which motifs I am much more comfortable with. They boil some hot dogs--never destined to be eaten, as it happens--in water in a big heavy pot at one point which for some reason I found extremely pleasing, as if the image summed up all of my most superficial feelings about the 1930s in a single blow. While there is a plot, and a not wholly insignificant one, the interest in the movie to me rests on the effectiveness of these images from the lives of our grandparents and great-grandparents and what relevance we can be persuaded to think they have for us now. It is about half-successful in this.

This movie has a couple of early 80s era actresses whose careers never really blew up big but whom I always liked a little, Lisa Eichhorn and Elizabeth McGovern. Lisa Eichhorn is 41 here, my age exactly now, and she still looks like her sweet senstive self. Now she is 59 and she looks old and not like her sweet sensitive self at all. This is nothing to the point except that I probably had not thought about her since around that time, so it came as rather a shock to realize that she was nearly 60 now. 1993 in certain things does not seem to me a long time ago. I was already with my wife in that year, for example, and she is still only in her 30s, and does not seem to me to have changed all that dramatically. Elizabeth McGovern probably is not much my type personality-wise. However she always reminds me of my main junior high love interest, who was also named Elizabeth, who also had an Irish surname beginning in McG--, who also had short cropped curly brown hair, and who due to the custom of forcing students to sit in rows in alphabetical order in class which was the rule in my middle school was seated about 2 feet in front of me around five hours a day for two years. Though she engaged in some mild teasing, on the whole she was cordial to me, and even danced with me twice at the Christmas dance in 1983, which was practically the highlight of the entire decade of the 80s as far as I was concerned; nonetheless she expertly managed me so that my passion remained always at a fairly low boil and never threatened to burst out in an unseemly spectacle, which looking back I think is quite admirable. She was flirty and playful without being conniving or narcissistic, and at least in junior high and early high school she always maintained a genuine respectability without being a killjoy, all of which are qualities I like in females. But all of this has very little to do with Elizabeth McGovern outside of my own head...

On Golden Pond (1981)

Just a few postings ago I mentioned that I had never seen this New Hampshire-set movie, a few days after which my system predictably turned it up to go on my list. This summer happens to be the film's 30th anniversary, so there are a number of events in New Hampshire commemorating the occasion as well, such as local theatrical productions of the original play and so on. I am not planning on attending any of them, but I think it is of interest to note that these goings-on are in the atmosphere as I try to make some sense of this old--in many ways really prematurely old--movie for myself.

In the first place I suspect that the most noteworthy aspect of the picture is the performances of Katherine Hepburn and Henry Fonda, which appear to be so strikingly good that one almost wonders if it is not somehow an illusion, and that either the rest of the cast, or the writing of their characters, are abnormally terrible, or that there is something in the old legends' superior, almost effortlessly self-assured bearings that hoodwink the viewer into thinking their acting work grander than it really was, because we have become unaccustomed to seeing these particular qualities in our contemporaries. The dominance of the aged stars also contributes to the film's seeming to belong to a more remote past than it really does, Hepburn and Fonda's careers of course dating back to the earliest days of talking pictures, nearly half the entire history of which is (remarkably) contained within my own lifetime, but which are such a ubiquitous part of our cultural lives that its early era psychologically feels nearly as distant to us as artistic movements hundreds of years old.

The story is also dated in other of its concerns. Its primary theme is the generational conflict between the hard core of the Depression/WWII generation (Hepburn and Fonda) and their children, the Silent Generation that came of age in the 50s and early 60s. Unlike the baby boomers, who though usually obnoxious even they aren't being dangerously wrong-headed are at least adversarially strong, the Silents were never much of a match for their elders, and even in this movie which was clearly written by one of their number (it has been noted that the cohort of Americans born in the 1930s has been highly prolific and accomplished in most of the arts comparative to most of those which followed it), which I gather was intended to present their situation in a sympathetic light and try to reconcile especially the Henry Fonda character's overbearing and stifling qualities with his strong ones, they come across as almost hopelessly weak and stunted in their development when juxtaposed against their parents. One of the major plot threads is that Henry Fonda and his daughter (played by his actual famous daughter Jane, whose limited acting ability contrasted against her father's brilliance while essentially on his deathbed only further emphasizes the previous point) are estranged because he was hard and emotionally distant. In 2011, with middle class society on the brink of collapse and when our concerns are almost exclusively socio-economic, these 1970s era complaints about domineering and emotionally unavailable fathers strike one as almost quaint. From our vantage point, Henry Fonda hardly seems like such a terrible father. Besides being married and having a better relationship with his children's mother than most contemporary men are able to manage, he not only had a career, but quite a prestigious one (professor at an Ivy League university! think of the advantages! the connections!). The children doubtless were all sent to private schools. He was a competent outdoorsman and was a good role model as far as not being a total pussy or woman-dominated man goes. No evidence is offered that he beat his children unduly. Who cares that he was not the most cuddly guy in the world? Where is all this sensitive new age fathering getting us anyway?

This was filmed at Squam Lake in New Hampshire, about a 45 minute drive from my house. While I have driven past it numerous times, I have never actually gone in or on it, though I believe there are points that are publicly accessible. There are a multitude of other lakes around that I have been to, so it is more a matter of chance that I have not been there rather than socioeconomic deprivation, though I am under the impression that it is one of the more expensive lakes in the area as far as property values. Although I don't think of myself as having any friends, I have still managed over the years to get myself invited to a few private cabins on other lakes, several of which were older and a lot like the one in the movie, though the ones I visited were probably a little smaller. It has been a trend since affluent people began to really rake in the bucks in the mid-90s to knock down these older cabins and build something more in keeping with one's contemporary level of grandeur, but there are still a good number of old New Englanders of more modest means clinging to the old cabins their family bought in the 40s. These are the people I mainly know. Of course the temptation to sell out when mom finally passes on is increasingly great, and if Mitt Romney (to name one noted summerer on the New Hampshire lakes) or one of his buddies is the buyer, you can be sure they won't be keeping the old house standing, unless it is to store boats and take showers in.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Human Understanding--Part the Fourth

***(Picture, see below)

I seem to have already exhausted all the pictures of John Locke that are in circulation, so this post will be words only. Not even any girls today. I could not find anything that fit the mood.

Book II, Chap. XXVII (Idea of Personal Idenity): "...I once met with one, who was persuaded his had been the soul of Socrates." I think I met that guy too.

Chap. XXVIII (Idea of Moral Relations): "...mankind have fitted their notions and words to the use of common life, and not to the truth and extent of things." Yes, but if you do not have something of the thought process of a philosopher, this idea will have no meaning for you.

Chap XXXI (Of Adequate and Inadequate Ideas): "And so each sensation answering the power that operates on any of our senses, the idea so produced is a real idea, (and not a fiction of the mind, which has no power to produce any simple idea)..." I like the clarity of this. I have very few distinct ideas which would contribute in any way to a general understanding or world view. This sounds correct to me, but I have a very hard time adhering to any singular, precise viewpoint where abstractions are concerned.

"Thus by having the idea of a figure with three sides meeting at three angles, I have a complete idea, wherein I require nothing else to make it perfect." The perfection of the idea of the triangle is one of the pillars on which my old school was built, and the extent to which you are able to internalize this idea and allow it to become a guiding tenet of your life plays a great role in determining the nature of your experience there. Not necessarily the quality of your actual learning, but definitely the nature of your experience.

I thought that the breakdown of true and false ideas was clear and sensible.

I am finally through my tidbits from Volume 1. I am pretty sure I have much fewer notes on Volume 2.

Book III, Chap IV (Of the Names of Simple Ideas). "I say that the names of simple ideas, and those only, are incapable of being defined." His reasoning was that a definition is an explanation of the meaning of one word by the use of other words, but these cannot describe a basic idea that is not a composite of other ideas but has only a single attribute that it signifies, and is in fact meaningless itself until brought into relations. My impression is that this difficulty has been overcome.

Old philosophers in general are concerned with (......? I cannot make out my note here. It is a big word too) the mind, which is not only the locus of knowledge but the most important repository of it. I am not certain that going forward this is going to be regarded as the case.

***Chap VI (Names of Our Ideas of Substances) "...and our idea of any individual man would be as far different from what it is now, as is his who knows all the springs and wheels and other contrivances within of the famous clock at Strasburg, from that which a gazing contryman has of it, who barely sees the motion of the hand, and hears the clock strike, and observes only some of the outward appearances." I would have liked to have gone to Strasbourg. Some major segment of the EU governing apparatus operates out of there, so it is modernized and trendy to a greater degree than I am usually comfortable with, but the cathedral and the old quarter are still reputed to be remarkable, and the food is supposed to be very special as well, the Alsatian cuisine being as far as I can make out something like the marriage of Germanic ingredients and Gallic sensibility, both of which I like.

I thought that the bit about necessity applying to ideas rather than things themselves uncontemplated was ingenious. Of course without mind, what does the entirety of creation signify? It is preposterous.

"There is not so contemptible a plant or animal, that does not confound the most enlarged understanding." I know these forays into high Civilization must be profoundly boring and singularly uninstructive to everybody else, but they restore my equilibrium.

There is a reference in this same chapter to Thomas Aquinas's "ordines angelorum"--gradations of angels. This evidently invoked a reminiscence at the time, though unfortunately I forgot to record what it was.

Personal anecdote: 'November 19, 2008--Oscar (my oldest son, then 6 1/2) said "Is everything I do something?" A Lockean question. I answered, "If your mind is capable of perceiving the action, it is something."' I would never have remembered this if I had not jotted it down hastily in the margin of my book.

Locke quotes a story from a French miscellany of anecdotes and bons mots that I think will make a good end for this post:

"When the abbott of St Martin was born, he had so little of the figure of a man, that it bespake him rather a monster. It was for some time under deliberation, whether he should be baptized or no. However, he was baptized, and declared a man provisionally [till time should show what he would prove]. Nature had moulded him so untowardly, that he was called all his life the Abbot Malotru; i.e. ill-shaped. He was of Caen." Caen is not so distinctive and remarkable as Strasbourg, but I should have liked to have gone there too. I believe it is a run down old seaside resort in Normandy, and was frequented by many of the Impressionist painters. It sounds like my kind of place.