Why the Iliad?

We begin our study of the humanities with The Iliad for three reasons:

1.  It is of foundational significance for our culture.
2.  It is one of the most famous stories of war.
3.  It is a poem.

I begin with (2), for it is the easiest to explain.  Our theme for the year is war, and perhaps there are no more famous tales of war than The Iliad.

As for (3), one might wonder, "why poetry?"  That's a good question.  Poetry challenges us because it is a challenging use of language.  Most of what we read uses language as a medium to convey information.  News stories, emails and messages from friends and teachers, this very blog post, all share a common trait in that they use language to point to information and events beyond language (i.e., stuff about the world!).  Literature often uses more elevated language than these forms, and part of its effect is achieved through the rhythm, lyricality, and beauty of its prose.  But overall, I want to claim that literature is still more similar to the news than it is to poetry when it comes to its use and treatment of language.  Literature uses language to tell you a story, to paint an image in your mind.  Now, what of poetic language?  Poetry uses language for more than conveying information, or a message.  This is not to say that it doesn't do those things, but just to say that it does more with language than those things.  Poetry is meant to be performed aloud.  Poetry is created with attention to how it will sound.  It aims to please the ear.  Thus, poetry is a form of art.  It aims at beauty.  Works of art are fundamental to the humanities because they require interpretation, and interpretation is the fundamental task of the humanities.  One could argue that news stories and blog posts also require interpretation, but I am claiming here that if they do then they require much much less interpretation than works of art.  And yes, literature is art too, but we set that aside here.  Art is interesting and speaks to the human condition precisely because its meaning is not immediately clear.  It challenges the viewer to find meaning within it, or in relation to it.  The Iliad is no different in this regard.  We must interpret its meaning, and thus it makes for an excellent starting point in our introduction to the humanities.

(1) is related to everything I just said about (3).  The Iliad challenges us as a work of art that requires interpretation.  What sort of interpretation should we give it?  Well, lots of people think that the meaning of The Iliad  resides in what it tells us about values.  Values structure our lives at both the personal and societal level.  You might value family above work, and thus you make sure you set aside time to go visit your grandparents every week.  Our society values free speech, and thus we must tolerate some speech that we don't like in order to preserve our commitment to people's right to say things that might be controversial or even distasteful.  So what does The Iliad teach us about value? Well, some have argued that The Iliad has "foundational significance for our culture" because it provides a kind of template, or blue-print for the basic values we find in western democratic societies.  Others have said it goes deeper than this, for The Iliad helps us see not only what societal values we have inherited from the Greeks, but also what is fundamentally human.  Perhaps the defining trait of humans, as opposed to other animals, is our awareness of our own mortality.  The characters and events in The Iliad constantly reckon with death.  Being aware that one will die and thus living one's life a certain way is the central meaning of this text, and should force us to confront our own awareness of death.  Still others claim that The Iliad teaches us about how society can be set up in order to encourage or suppress certain basic desires that we all have as humans.  The desire to conquer, dominate, and be powerful might be diverted or suppressed in our current society through athletics, consumerism, and education; whereas in Homeric society they were nurtured and shaped in order to create a society of warriors and those who supported warriors.

The Iliad does not have a fixed meaning.  We make meaning out of it in our encounter with it.  This is the interpretive task of the humanities, the challenge posed by great works of art, and something we will work on all year in relation to another seemingly fundamental feature of the human condition: war.


On the nature of evidence: revelation or gravitas?

Husserl distinguishes two types of evidence: "self-evidence" and "indication".  That which is "self-evident" is "seen" with "insight" and "clarity".  The idea of clarity and distinctness as the defining characteristics of evidence goes back to Descartes, at least.  That which is an "indication" signals something else; indications "point to" or "press upon" or "motivate" us conclude or presume something regarding something other than that which indicates.

If we are to take seriously that all knowledge is corrigible; if we are to be truly respectful of concepts such as "historicality" and "culture" and "the social," then we must grant that a perfectly secure grasp on meaning is impossible, that the ideal of self-evidence is precisely that, and ideal.  More importantly, it is the ideal of indication and not somehow different in kind, as Husserl asserts.  Heidegger, perhaps, begins to grasp this, yet remains committed to the metaphors of "clearing" and "shining."  Merleau-Ponty develops this theme most adequately.  He grasps the essential tension between the drive for clarity and self-evidentness--indeed, it is to be celebrated and valued--and the fact that this drive is but one amongst many that compete for attention, pushing and pulling our conscious lives down various paths.  Any phenomenal character of "self-evidence," of "insight," "grasping," or "clarity," is just motivation to the highest degree.  It is better characterized by "heaviness" and other gravatational metaphors.  That which we seem to grasp with the utmost clarity are really that which we are most committed to, that which we cannot help but take to mean a certain something. 


On why 30 Rock makes you feel smart

30 Rock makes you feel smart because in order to find it funny you must enjoy thinking through several layers (and thus by definition we are talking "meta-layers") of meaning.

For example, when Jack Donaghey exclaims: "Good god, Devon's gay.  He's more powerful than I thought!" we laugh because its smart of us to laugh.  I laugh because of how an absurd situation is overcome through wit.  The absurd situation here is the discovery that someone you know very well is gay.  Of course, many would consider it natural to exclaim "Good god" after finding out such a piece of information.  For these people the exclamation is typically warranted by the fact that being gay is somehow wrong, odd, taboo, a piece of juicy gossip, etc. It is for precisely this demographic that the joke is not intended.  The people who find it funny are those who would never actually exclaim "Good god" upon finding out someone is gay.  This demographic smacks its forehead when someone treats coming out like its something to be gossiped about or derided.  Those of us who find the joke funny enjoy the full line because it makes light of such a backward reaction (the "Good god!"part) by making fun of it with the exact opposite of its typical motive.  "He's even more powerful than I thought" is beautifully witty because it subtly insults a certain portion of the population by portraying its perfect ideological nemesis (i.e. one who believes that being gay is a big deal because it is somehow advantageous, cool, powerful, etc.) as equally absurd for basically the same reason (that it is absurd to think that one's sexual orientation is worth considering in terms of "better" or "worse" off). 

Looking at Screens

My life is dominated by screens.  I look at my phone and laptop in bed.  I look at my phone and laptop and TV in my living room.  I go the office and look at my phone and laptop and another small-TV-sized monitor.  There is rarely a waking moment when I do not have immediate access to a screen, usually multiple screens.

At times, this is concerning.  Philosophers like Husserl and Deleuze have noted the constitutive power of processes of passive or affective synthesis.  The idea here is that a great deal of my identity as an organism (Deleuze), as a subject (Deleuze and Husserl), and as a person (Husserl) is constituted by affective relations to my environment.  In an image: my habits, expectations, motivated chains of thought, comforts, and so on are built up over time as I snowball about my world, accumulating ever more of it as it shapes and guides me.

The worry: fundamental change in form of life: now life is spent looking at things on screens instead of just things.

Of course, screens themselves count as "things"--I'm not making that rigorous of a metaphysical distinction--but they sure are very different than most things.  Screens open up new worlds.  The world presents us with things, but so do screens, even though screens are one of those things we are presented with in the world. 

Counter to the worry: why the nostalgia for things?  what do we actually do with screens? I spend an increasing amount of my screen time looking at or communicating with other people.

I'm not sure what screens are making me into, but I do know that I am always interested in higher resolution.  "Clear and distinct..." as Descartes says...


Breaking Bad and Doxastic Voluntarism

As I work my way through the acclaimed television series Breaking Bad, an episode from Season 3 struck me.

I have been a devotee to The Wire ever since I plowed through all five seasons back in 2008...and then again in 2010.  The Wire is a masterpiece.  I think it is best summarized as being about "the effect of institutions on individuals."

But what is Breaking Bad "about"?  I had enjoyed the first two seasons, but this was no Wire.  In this particular episode of season 3, it struck me: BB is about belief.  Of course, BB is about many things. But I think its overarching metaphor of "breaking bad" qua transformation or rebirth can be analyzed in terms of what we choose to believe, or rather whether we can choose to believe things in a non-self-deluding way.  To use fancy philosopher terms, BB is about doxastic voluntarism.

In this particular episode, Walt's wife Skylar finally abandons a crucial strand in her web of beliefs to acknowledge what she knew to be true all along.  Skylar has always known that Walt had two cell phones.  Walt's abduction and subsequent (epically) elaborate alibi–that he was in a "fugue state"–give Skylar two doxastic options: (a) Remain skeptical of Walt's alibi in favor of her hard perceptual evidence that Walt is indeed "up to something", or (b) Assent to (adopt the belief that?) Walt's alibi is honest testimony.  Skylar acts as if she believes Walt for several episodes, which is perhaps sufficient for (b). When Skylar finally confronts Walt, her words echo Tolstoy's when Karenin lets himself go on believing that there is nothing going on between Anna and Vronsky:
"What he knew was so dreadful that now he was ready to believe anything"
Here I simply rehearse Ermanno Bencivenga's argument in his (1999) "Knowledge Versus Belief."  Belief is a more sophisticated achievement than knowledge.  Knowledge is basic and belief is "a way of countering knowledge, of disturbing it and possibly deactivating it, not of subsuming it in a comprehensive embrace."  Belief is deontic to the core: it involves a choice, a taking responsibility for a certain manner of representing the world and one's place within it.  Skylar had too much at stake to not adopt the veracity of Walt's alibi.  The lie was too big, too major of a strand in a coherent web far preferable to that other coherent, but incomplete, web.

Just as Karenin tells himself an improbable story about the meaning of Anna's mannerisms and gestures, Skylar projects improbable scenarios regarding Walt's strange disappearances, his second cell phone, his "fugue state."  Perhaps most interesting is the social nature of Skylar's delusion.  Not only is she wrapped up in a commitment to representing reality a certain way, she is wrapped up in Walt's commitment to representing reality a certain way.  From a third-person standpoint this is not surprising; of course we are more likely to adopt commitments that mirror and support the commitments of those closest to us.  Our stability depends on it.


Thinking Together (con't)

[excerpts from an interview with Rolf-Dieter Heuer, head of CERN]
(my emphases)

The European: Should scientists be more vocal in the public sphere?
Heuer: If they have right things to say, yes. When we make important decisions, we should be able to rely on sound premises and statements. Just babbling isn’t so good. I also believe that science can really provide an example for cooperation that works. “Diversity” is such a nice word, such a nice mix of different ideas and characters. We can show that diversity enriches us.

The European: In the middle of the Eurozone crisis, you head a European institution that has worked rather seamlessly for almost 60 years. Is basic research possible on a strictly national level?
Heuer: Our research would be impossible without a collaborative element. The infrastructure necessary for basic research has gotten so big – at CERN but also e.g. in the case of electron lasers. You need many brains and hands to build it – that’s impossible on a national level. CERN was founded in 1954, when a bunch of scientists and politicians got together right after World War II and said: “we will only be successful together.” The decades since then have confirmed that approach. I think that we will even have to go further in the future and cooperate globally.

The European: The re-nationalization of Europe is the wrong way?
Heuer: I think it goes in the wrong direction. We need something that we can work on collaboratively. And we also need projects that we can pursue individually – often, those are smaller projects. Take food as an example: it’s good to introduce certain standards, but we should not give up regional cuisines. We need to strike a balance between international large-scale projects and smaller, national or bilateral projects. You won’t get very far if you only pursue lighthouse projects.

I emphasized 4 claims from this except:

1.  Science can really provide an example for cooperation that works.
  •  This seems obviously true.  
2.   Our research would be impossible without a collaborative element.
  • This also seems obviously true, so long as "our" is indexed to a group of scientists working on a large scale project, requiring large scale equipment/infrastructure/man-hours, etc.
3&4.   (i)We need something that we can work on collaboratively.  And (ii)we also need projects that we can pursue individually – often, those are smaller projects.
  • I put three and four together because I wish to evaluate them in tandem.  (i) is a normative claim typical of the idea that the pursuit of scientific understanding of the world will naturally promote harmony and understanding.  (ii) also seems trivially true so long as "individual project" just means finding some purpose for your life through a collection of goal-oriented activities.  I currently have a watch-all-the-Breaking-Bad-episodes project, in addition to my get-a-phd-in-philosophy project.  The interesting thing to do here is see the four possible permutations of (i) and (ii).  Heuer claims both are true, and this sounds like a reasonable balanced position, Aristotilian virtuous and all that–the mean between extremes.  If one claimed (i) as true and (ii) as false, one would have a radically communal view of human life.  On this view, belief is collective all the way down.  One could claim that (i) is false and (ii) is true and have a sort of radical individualism–perhaps a sort of romantic-Nietzschean–existentialist view whereby we only find meaning in life through overcoming the herd and grasping one's ownmost finitude and making a Kierkegaardian leap of faith.  Rejecting both (i) and (ii) seems almost like Pyrrhonian skepticism–a cautious abstention from putting too much stock in any one surefire view of human value or teleology.  
I agree with Heuer's position, but with stronger leaning toward the importance of the communal aspect of life.  My position would be more like: We need things that we can work on collaboratively, and we probably aren't doing enough of these.  We also need projects that we can pursue individually, and we are probably too caught up in most of these.


On the nature of sport: climbing in focus

When I claim that climbing is not a "pure sport," one would be greatly mistaken to think that I mean this in any diminutive sense, i.e. as saying something like "climbing is merely an activity not a true sport."  I say this because climbing is more than a sport.  If anything, it's more like war.  I'm not trying to say that climbing is war, either.  I just mean you could die doing both.  Both necessarily involve the risk of death and/or grave injury.  No matter how cautious you are being as either a climber or a soldier, you can always just die for some reason beyond your control.  I grant that one can die playing a sport, but hey, let's face it, it doesn't happen that often.  It's a difference in kind, not degree.  Both climbing and war evoke primal survival instinct.  Perhaps some athletes can conjure this kind of adrenaline in intense situations, but it sure is easier when your life actually is on the line.  This makes climbing into a somewhat paradoxical activity: the more you put yourself at risk, the better you will perform.  You simply must.  You'll die otherwise.  Hard to feel like that on a tennis court.  But of course the more you put yourself at risk the higher the chance you'll die, so it kinda turns off the appeal of climbing harder.  People who improve as climbers–who "climb harder"–have the strange ability to be dumb enough to try riskier and riskier moves, but smart enough to know deep down their bodily capabilities.

Thinking Together

Why care about cognitive empathy?  It is not intrinsically truth directed.  The state I am talking about as "occurrent grasping," elicited when thinking together, is non-factive apparent knowing.  The end of thinking together is "cognitive alignment," evidenced by agents coming to share a language, to function within the same discourse.  Cognitive alignment is not intrinsically truth directed.  However, it is a desirable goal because it does entail the conservation of cognitive resources.  Conserving cognitive resources is obviously desirable.  Were we to question ourselves at every turn, show concern for the paradigm we are operating within, questioning our methods, our terms thrown in to doubt at every opportunity, always questioning the validity of the research program rather than simply pursuing the research program, in short, we wouldn't get anywhere.  However, we must be mindful that preservation of cognitive resources is not the ultimate value, truth is.  Thus, the virtue of cognitive alignment and preservation of cognitive resources is tempered by the virtue of critique.

The more ambitious claim: cognitive alignment gets us something more than just preservation of cognitive resources.  Thinking together is valuable for reasons besides efficiency.  Still working on this...


Some cool/weird things I learned about the Olympics

[source: Esquire magazine, August 2012]

1901: Sumner Paine's shooting medal keeps him out of prison: Accused of trying to shoot his wife's lover, Paine was released when police learned of his medal and realized he'd missed intentionally.

1912: George S. Patton, future general of the U.S. Army, competes in the first modern pentathlon.

1936: American sprinter Helen Stephens wins gold in the women's hundred-meter, only to be accused of being male.  A subsequent examination confirms her to be female.  Her rival, silver medalist Stella Walsh of Poland, will reportedly be found to have testes when she is autopsied in 1980.  A few years after the Games, Dora Ratjen of Germany, who finished fourth in the women's high jump, will admit to being a man, start living as one, and change her name to Heinrich.

1948: At age seventeen, American Bob Mathias wins the decathlon–after only four months of training[!!!]

1948, 1952: Karoly Takacs, a world pistol-shooting champion from Hungary whose dominant right hand was shattered by  grenade in 1938, teaches himself to shoot with his left, then earns gold medals in the next two Olympics.

1960: When his team issued shoes that don't feel right Ethiopia's Abebe Bikila runs the marathon barefoot, and wins.

1980: The U.S. leads a boycott of the Moscow games, leaving only eighty nations to compete.  The women's field hockey competition is reduced to two teams, the USSR and Zimbabwe, which cobbled together a team in less than a week.  Zimbabwe wins.

1988: Canadian sailor Lawrence Lemieux abandons his second-place position in a race to rescue an injured competitor.

1988: When live doves are released during the opening ceremonies, many are burned alive by the lighting of the Olympic cauldron.


On needing a replacement for paper

I do not have any specific nostalgia for printed books.  But I do not think that e-readers or ipads have come far enough to replace books...yet, at least.  Allow me to explain.  There are certain obstacles to replacing printed material with digital that are merely difficulties.  "Difficulties" include figuring out a way to get all that stuff we printed on paper for so long translated into a digital format, so we can ditch the filing cabinets and the stacks of useless documentation that we can't quite simply abandon.  However, there are certain obstacles to replacing printed material that are more than mere difficulties, they are real puzzles.  A "puzzle" is any problem associated with the transition from printed to digital material that involves a loss of functionality.

The various e-readers and ipads on the market have come a long way on these puzzles.  One particular area of success is an effective response to the typical complaint: "But I need to write on/highlight my books, so I need hard copies."  Well, as someone who often voiced that complaint and used it to justify a lot of printing, I will be the first to say that the ability to highlight pdfs and make annotations has really come along nicely, and I now find myself printing a lot less and making my annotations directly on the digital format.  Puzzle solved.

However, one puzzle remains which I call "the puzzle of tactile understanding".  Different books look, but more importantly, feel different in one's hands.  When you pick up a thick volume that you have been steadily working through, your thumb "knows" just about where to insert itself and open the book.  For someone like myself who goes back and re-reads certain sections of text over and over again, looking for a specific spot in a book is a matter of flipping the pages until the thickness feels about right, and then leafing a few pages forward or backward to the precise spot.  On an e-reader or pdf on a laptop, the only thing analogous to this is the scroll bar.  But the scroll bar does not provide a tactile sense of book-location–its only visual.  And when a book is several hundred, or even thousand, pages long, the visual difference on the scroll bar between pg. 456 and pg. 672 is not that noticeable.  "I know I highlighted something around here," I often think to myself as I quickly thumb the pages of my worked-over copy of Being and Time; but, holding down the scroll key while a pdf breezes down my screen just doesn't seem to allow for the quick references I can extract from printed books.

Of course, even if this is a puzzle and not a mere difficulty, it doesn't mean its important or will stem the tide of electronic books.  In fact, I'm almost certain it won't.  We will learn to scan pages visually and we will come up with smart scroll bars.  E-books already have the leg-up when it comes to precise searching (printed books don't have a search bar).  But I do think that this is indeed a puzzle and not a mere difficulty in that the tactile understanding provided by the thickness of printed books will soon be a thing of the past.