Dewey and Husserl on the Western Crisis

In the early twentieth century, academics sensed a crisis in Western (European and American) thought. A profound skepticism and melancholy seemed to grip Western culture. People lost faith in traditional academic disciplines, like philosophy, to address social problems and provide a sense of purpose and direction. American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) and German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) had different responses to this crisis. Dewey argued that philosophy must become practical, while Husserl believed philosophy must continually find new areas for science to investigate. That way, philosophy could be saved from the intellectual trash bin.

John Dewey
John Dewey

Dewey believed the crisis in Western thought, a crisis which leads to anxiousness and pessimistic uncertainty, originated in Platonic dualism―the separation of concepts like Truth, Being, and Value from the changing physical world, and their removal from empirical study. The growing complexity of such thought led it further and further away from practical application, and the brightest minds spent their time studying algorithms and abstractions instead of applying their knowledge to the practical world.

As a pragmatist, Dewey called for a reconstruction in philosophy along pragmatic grounds, which would eventually bring abstract thought back to a realm of usefulness. We should take our beliefs in concepts like truth and value and put them to the test just as we do with other considerations. If it turns out those concepts have some practical use, we should keep them. If they don’t, we shouldn’t waste any more time or resources theorizing about them. There is no longer any scientific support, Dewey claimed, for morality standing outside the natural processes of change. Nor can science deny morality is a realm open to scientific inquiry.

If the crisis is to be solved, science and philosophy must be reunited. Dewey’s reconstruction in philosophy: “can be nothing less than the work of developing, of forming, of producing… the intellectual instrumentalities which will progressively direct inquiry into the deeply and exclusively human.” In other words, philosophy should be aimed at the natural, not the ‘supra’ natural of Plato’s forms, or the abstract spirit-driven historical method of Hegel.

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CNN’s Trump Twitter Obsession

There’s no question Donald Trump has used controversial statements to build a powerful social media following. His Twitter account in particular has attracted much consternation and hang-wringing, particularly among media outlets like CNN and the New York Times. Reporters love Twitter because it allows them to write news stories without ever leaving the office. Water cooler controversy over the latest tweet fuels link clicks and website visits, attracting coveted web traffic that drives advertising sales.

It started during the presidential primary, when CNN in particular salivated over now-President Trump’s social media faux pas. I imagined a CNN reporter exclusively monitoring @realDonaldTrump, waiting to pounce on any misspelling or provocative statement. Within minutes of a controversial tweet, an article popped up at CNN.com. “Ah HAH! THIS is the tweet that will finally undo Trump’s candidacy!” the reporter shouts, rubbing his hands. I wondered how much this guy got paid.

Fast forward to February 2017. Trump won the election and is now in the White House. The outrage continues. Admittedly, I follow both @realDonaldTrump and @CNN, and I’m amused when I see a tweet from Trump immediately followed by a tweet from CNN telling me what he just said. For people who are so outraged by his public pronouncements, they sure love spreading them far and wide.

TrumpTweets

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Is Starship Troopers a Satire of Fascism?

starship_troopers_-_movie_posterThe terms fascist and fascism get thrown around a lot, but rarely with accuracy. The science fiction novel Starship Troopers (1959) by Robert A. Heinlein, and the 1997 movie of the same name, are alternatively accused of promoting or lampooning fascism. Starship Troopers isn’t my favorite film, but I think it’s entertaining and original enough to rewatch every now and then. I just watched it last week, when to my surprise, RedLetterMedia featured it over the weekend in an episode of “re:View.” Watch the full episode here.

In their review, Mike and Jay take the position that Starship Troopers is a satire of fascism, and that audiences largely missed the point when the movie was released in 1997. There’s some evidence for this. The director, Paul Verhoeven, definitely interpreted Heinlein’s novel in this way. At one point, characters are wearing uniforms obviously inspired by the Nazi Gestapo. Violence is shown as the only solution, and militarism and war are at the center of this futuristic society. Characters consider the alien arachnids to be ugly, mindless, and inferior to humans. They are confined to a “Quarantine Zone,” like the Nazi ghettos.

Mike and Jay argue Starship Troopers inverts a common character arch in which a character living in an oppressive society comes to rebel against that society. Instead, in Starship Troopers, characters who originally question the social order, or who are at least indifferent to it, end up embracing it. Characters become less human as the film progresses, until, at the end, they cheer when it’s revealed a captured arachnid feels fear, an emotion that typically elicits sympathy.

starshiptroopersVerhoeven himself said his movie adaptation is “playing with fascism or fascist imagery to point out certain aspects of American society… of course, the movie is about ‘Let’s all go to war and let’s all die.'” He copied some propaganda scenes directly from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935).

But is the Terran Federation depicted in Starship Troopers a fascist society? Despite the fascist ascetic in the film, it just doesn’t measure up. Benito Mussolini defined fascism as a merger of corporations and the state. Fascism is more generally characterized by a cult of personality, extreme nationalism, veneration of past glory, militarism, racial superiority, and authoritarianism.

Well, Starship Troopers certainly portrays a militaristic society, but that is where the comparison ends.

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A Social History of Truth

a-social-history-of-truthIn A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England, Steven Shapin tries to answer the question, why do we believe something is true? He argues there is a disconnect between how we think knowledge is obtained and how it is actually obtained. Like scientists today, men of learning in the seventeenth century believed direct experience was the only way to obtain factual knowledge, and they rejected the “testimony of others.” However, Shapin argues testimony and authority are the very foundations of knowledge.

Trust, a necessary ingredient for working with others, is indispensable in science. Scientists use trust to sustain the structures that allow them to maintain and build on the body of knowledge they have acquired over the centuries. This social interaction, Shapin argued, contains assumed knowledge about the external world and who is trustworthy in that world. “The identification of trustworthy agents is necessary to the constitution of any body of knowledge.”

What kind of person do we trust to tell the truth? According to Shapin, it is the early modern English gentleman. A gentleman was a person who, because he was self-sufficient and free from economic burden, had no motivation to lie. Therefore, he had both the qualities of free action and virtue. The gentleman was culturally encouraged not to deceive. Virtue was enforced by the ever-present threat of loss of his status as a gentleman, which had far reaching social and political consequences.

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Anatomy of a Media Hit Piece

lord_of_nazgulI came across this hit piece at the New York Times recently, that uses guilt by association to demonize White House Chief Strategist Stephen K. Bannon and scare its readership into questioning the Trump administration’s motives and legitimacy. The headline itself begins with dark and ominous tones. “Taboo Italian Thinker Is Enigma to Many, but Not to Bannon.”

Uh oh, who is this obscure Italian, and why is he taboo? And how can an obscure Italian philosopher be an enigma to many, when most Americans have never heard of him?

It begins,

Those trying to divine the roots of Stephen K. Bannon’s dark and at times apocalyptic worldview have repeatedly combed over a speech that Mr. Bannon, President Trump’s ideological guru, made in 2014 to a Vatican conference, where he expounded on Islam, populism and capitalism.

But for all the examination of those remarks, a passing reference by Mr. Bannon to an esoteric Italian philosopher has gone little noticed, except perhaps by scholars and followers of the deeply taboo, Nazi-affiliated thinker, Julius Evola.

The first sentence passes off opinion as fact, and sets the tone for how the reader is supposed to feel about the rest of the article. “Bannon’s dark and at times apocalyptic worldview.” (Cue ominous organ music.) The second paragraph delves deeper. It tells us Bannon made a “passing reference” to Julius Evola, a 20th-Century Italian occultist and fascist intellectual. What was this reference? You’d have to dig to the bottom of the article to find it.

Mr. Bannon suggested in his Vatican remarks that the Fascist movement had come out of Evola’s ideas.

As Mr. Bannon expounded on the intellectual motivations of the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, he mentioned “Julius Evola and different writers of the early 20th century who are really the supporters of what’s called the Traditionalist movement, which really eventually metastasized into Italian Fascism.”

As the article points out, Bannon was actually incorrect. Evola used the fascist movement to promote his ideas, not vice versa. The real intellectual architect of Italian fascism was Giovanni Gentile. But so what? Bannon’s crime is having a passing knowledge of obscure philosophers and interwar European history? That’s like saying anyone who has read about terrorism is a proponent of terrorism.

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Hegel and Kant on Art

Why is art beautiful? Does art reveal something about truth? Is truth identical to beauty? German philosophers Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) both contemplated these questions, and they came up with different answers. For Hegel, truth and beauty are found in art. For Kant, truth and beauty are in the mind of the beholder.

Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant

According to Kant, when we view beautiful art, we recognize it as beautiful (a judgement of taste) because of the feeling it arouses. Liveliness of the mind brought about by a “harmony of the cognitive powers” is the basis of tasteful judgment. This feeling of harmony shows us that beauty is in our minds, and is not a quality that an object possesses.

The two cognitive powers at work when we perceive the beautiful are imagination and understanding. Understanding allows us to recognize the universal. The “free-play” resulting from these two cognitive powers in harmony together is sensed by the effect it has on the mind and produces a sense of pleasure.

When someone recognizes beauty and experiences this feeling of “free-play”, they assume everyone else also feels that way about the object, since everyone has the ability to experience the interaction between imagination and understanding. The ability for everyone to experience that particular feeling is what makes it universally subjective. Because of this, for Kant, a judgment of beauty requires agreement between observers.

Form and design are both essential to beautiful art, according to Kant, because they each play a role in how we judge what is beautiful. Only from form can we “abstract from the quality of the kind of sensation in question.” Kant believed that all primary colors, which are kinds of forms, are beautiful because they have yet to be mixed together. He does not believe mixed colors are beautiful because “we lack a standard of judging whether we should call them pure or impure.” Purity is an important aspect of form.

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The Landscape of History: History as a Science

the-landscape-of-historyHistory and the social sciences are very different academic disciplines, and John Lewis Gaddis, in his book The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (2004), explains why. Gaddis is the Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History at Yale University and is best known for his work on the Cold War. In The Landscape of History, he argues that both history and the social sciences are scientific, but what the disciplines are concerned with differs. In simplistic terms, social scientists are concerned with the future and historians are concerned with the past. Because the social sciences are more speculative in that way, they are more likely to inaccurately carry out their task. The social sciences will almost never be able to predict future events, but historians will be able to describe the past in more or less accurate ways.

The social sciences understand reality by dividing it into parts and use each part to explain the whole. They look for these independent variables and expect to find them out in the world. Natural sciences like geology and astronomy have an ecological worldview that allows them to study how each part effects the whole and how the whole affects the parts. There is no way to separate each variable from the whole and study them as though the variables could exist independently from the whole.

Gaddis argues, in even more simplistic terms, that the reductionist view is exclusive and the ecological view is inclusive. For the social sciences, the reductionist viewpoint allows them to make predictions about future behavior. Future behavior can be predicted because it conforms to rules that have operated in the past, are operating in the present, and can be discovered. These rules are assumed to apply to everyone, everywhere, and to never change over time. Historians, however, don’t concern themselves with future predictions.

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