Review: The New Organon

Review: The New Organon

The New OrganonThe New Organon by Francis Bacon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Since I’ve lately read Aristotle’s original, I thought I’d go ahead and read Bacon’s New Organon. The title more or less says it all. For this book is an attempt to recast the method of the sciences in a better mold. Whereas Aristotle spends pages and pages enumerating the various types of syllogisms, Bacon dismisses it all with one wave of the hand—away with such scholarly nonsense! Because Aristotle is so single-mindedly deductive, his scientific research came to naught; or, as Bacon puts it, “Aristotle, who made his natural philosophy a mere bond servant to his logic, thereby [rendered] it contentious and well-nigh useless.”

What is needed is not deduction—which draws trivial conclusions form absurd premises—but induction. More specifically, what is needed is a great deal of experiments, the results of which the careful scientist can sort into air-tight conclusions. Down with the syllogism; up with experiment. Down with the schoolmen; up with the scientists.

In my (admittedly snotty) review of Bacon’s Essays, I remarked that he would have done better to have written a work entirely in aphorisms. Little did I know that Bacon did just that, and it is this book. Whatever Bacon’s defects were as a politician or a philosopher, Bacon is the undisputed master of the pithy, punchy maxim. In fact, his writing style can be almost sickening, so dense is it with aphorism, so rich is it with metaphor, so replete is it with compressed thought.

In the first part of his New Organon all of the defects of Bacon’s style are absent, and all of his strengths are present in full force. Indeed, if this work consisted of only the first part, it would have merited five stars, for it is a tour de force. Bacon systematically goes through all of the errors the human mind is prone to when investigating nature, leaving no stone unturned and no vices unexamined, damning them all in epigram after epigram. The reader hardly has time to catch his breath from one astonishing insight, when Bacon is on to another.

Among these insights are, of course, Bacon’s famous four idols. We have the Idol of the Tribe, which consist of the errors humans are wont to make by virtue of their humanity. For our eyes, our ears, and our very minds distort reality in a systematic way—something earlier philosophers had, so far as I know, neglected to account for. We have then the Idols of the Cave, which are the foibles of the individual person, over and above the common limitations of our species. Of these may include certain pet theories, preferences, accidents of background, peculiarities of taste. And then finally we have the Idols of the Market Place, which are caused by the deceptive nature of language and words, as well as the Idols of the Theater, which consists of the various dogmas present in the universities and schools.

Bacon also displays a remarkable insight into psychology. He points out that humans are pattern-seeking animals, which leads us to sometimes see patterns which aren’t there: “The human understanding is of its own nature prone to suppose the existence of more order and regularity in the world than it finds.” Bacon also draws the distinction, made so memorable in Isaiah Berlin’s essay, between foxes and hedgehogs: “… some minds are stronger and apter to mark the differences of things, others to mark their resemblances.” Bacon also notes, in terms no psychologist could fault, a description of confirmation bias:

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.

Part two, on the other hand, is a tedious, rambling affair, which makes the patient reader almost forget the greatness of the first half. Here, Bacon moves on from condemning the errors of others to setting up his own system. In his opinion, scientific enquiry is a simple matter of tabulation: make a table of every situation in which a given phenomenon is always found, and then make a table of every situation in which a given phenomenon is never found; finally, make a table of every situation in which said phenomenon is sometimes found, shake well, and out comes your answer.

The modern reader will not recognize the scientific method in this process. For we now know that Bacon’s induction is not sufficient. (Though, he does use his method to draw an accurate conclusion about the nature of heat: “Heat is a motion, expansive, restrained, and acting in its strife upon the smaller particles of bodies.”) What Bacon describes is more or less what we’d now call ‘natural history’, a gathering up of facts and a noting of regularities. But the scientific method proper requires the framing of hypotheses. The hypothesis is key, because it determines what facts need to be collected, and what relationship those facts will have with the theory in question. Otherwise, the buzzing world of facts is too lush and fecund to tabulate; there are simply too many facts. Furthermore, Bacon makes the somewhat naïve—though excusable, I think—assumption that a fact is simply a fact, whereas we now know that facts are basically meaningless unless contextualized; and, in science, it is the theory in question which contextualizes said facts.

The importance of hypotheses also makes deduction far more important than Bacon acknowledges. For the aspiring experimentalist must often go through a long chain of deductive reasoning before he can determine what experiment should be performed in order to test a theory. In short, science relies on both deductive and inductive methods, and the relationship of theory to data is far more intertwined than Bacon apparently thinks. (As a side note, I’d also like to point out that Bacon wasn’t much of a scientist himself; he brings up the Copernican view of the heliocentric solar system many times, only to dismiss it as ridiculous, and also seems curiously unaware of the other scientific advances of his day.)

In a review of David Hume’s Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, I somewhat impertinently remarked that the English love examples—or, to use a more English word, instances. I hope not to offend any English readers, but Bacon confirms me in this prejudice—for the vast bulk of this work is a tedious enumeration of twenty-seven (yes, that’s almost thirty) types of ‘instances’ to be found in nature. Needless to say, this long and dry list of the different sorts of instances makes for both dull reading and bad philosophy, for I doubt any scientist in the history of the world ever made progress by sorting his results into one of Bacon’s categories.

So the brilliant, brash, and brazen beginning of this book fizzles out into pedantry that, ironically enough, rivals even Aristotle’s original Organon. So, to repeat myself, the title of this book more or less says it all.

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Review: Organon (Aristotle)

Review: Organon (Aristotle)

OrganonOrganon by Aristotle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Aristotle continues to provoke conflicting reactions in me. I am always torn between realizing his tremendous originality and historical importance, and suffering from his extraordinary dullness. This book exemplifies both sides of the coin. Seeing a man single-handedly create the field of logic, ex nihilo, is tremendous; yet reading through these treatises could put a coffee-addict in a coma.

I am not insensitive to the appeals of philosophy. Far from it; I think reading philosophy is thrilling. Some of my most acute aesthetic experiences have been had contemplating some philosopher’s idea. Yet I have never had this reaction to Aristotle’s writings. Part of this is due to his formidable difficulty; another part, to the nature of the works (which, I must constantly remind myself, are lecture-notes).

Nevertheless, Aristotle had a prosaic mind; even when faced with the most abstract phenomena in the universe, his first reaction is to start parceling everything into neat categories, and to go on making lists and explanations of these categories. He does make logical arguments, but they are often brief, and almost as often unsatisfactory. Much of the time the student is faced with the dreary task of working his way through Aristotle’s system, simply because it is his system, and not because it is empirically or logically compelling.

(Every time I write a review for Aristotle, it comes out so disappointed. Let me try to be more positive.)

My favorite piece in this was the Posterior Analytics, which is a brilliant treatise on epistemology, logic, and metaphysics. Aristotle succinctly presents an entire theory of knowledge, and it’s incomparably more rigorous and detailed than anything Plato could have produced. I also particularly liked the Topics, as there we see Aristotle as a seasoned debater, in addition to a bumbling professor. Of course, there is much of strictly philosophic interest in this work as well; a particularly memorable problem is that of the future naval-battle.

For me, Aristotle is at his best when he is discussing the acquisition of knowledge. For Aristotle, whatever his faults, more perfectly embodied the love of knowledge than any other thinker in history. He wanted to know all; and, considering his historical limitations, he came damn near close. Us poor moderns have to content ourselves with either a mastery of one tiny slice of reality, or a dilettante acquaintance with all of it; Aristotle had the whole world at his fingertips.

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Review: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Review: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

The Structure of Scientific RevolutionsThe Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Observation and experience can and must drastically restrict the range of admissible scientific belief, else there would be no science. But they cannot alone determine a particular body of such belief. An apparently arbitrary element, compounded of personal and historical accident, is always a formative ingredient of the beliefs espoused by a given scientific community at a given time.

This is one of those wonderfully rich classics, touching on many disparate fields and putting forward ideas that have become permanent fixtures of our mental furniture. Kuhn synthesizes insights from history, sociology, psychology, and philosophy into a novel conception of science—one which, despite seemingly nobody agreeing with it, has become remarkably influential. Indeed, this book made such an impact that the contemporary reader may have difficulty seeing why it was so controversial in the first place.

Kuhn’s fundamental conception is of the paradigm. A paradigm is a research program that defines a discipline, perhaps briefly, perhaps for centuries. This is a not only a dominant theory, but a set of experimental methodologies, ontological commitments, and shared assumptions about standards of evidence and explanation. These paradigms usually trace their existence to a breakthrough work, such as Newton’s Principia or Lavoisier’s Elements; and they persist until the research program is thrown into crisis through stubborn anomalies (phenomena that cannot be accounted for within the theory). At this point a new paradigm may arise and replace the old one, such as the switch from Newton’s to Einstein’s system.

Though Kuhn is often spoken of as responding to Popper, I believe his book is really aimed at undermining the old positivistic conception of science: where science consists of a body of verified statements, and discoveries and innovations cause this body of statements to gradually grow. What this view leaves out is the interconnection and interdependence between these beliefs, and the reciprocal relationship between theory and observation. Our background orients our vision, telling us where to look and what to look for; and we naturally do our best to integrate a new phenomenon into our preexisting web of beliefs. Thus we may extend, refine, and elaborate our vision of the world without undermining any of our fundamental theories. This is what Kuhn describes as “normal science.”

During a period of “normal science” it may be true that scientific knowledge gradually accumulates. But when the dominant paradigm reaches a crisis, and the community finds itself unable to accommodate certain persistent observations, a new paradigm may take over. This cannot be described as a mere quantitative increase in knowledge, but is a qualitative shift in vision. New terms are introduced, older ones redefined; previous discoveries are reinterpreted and given a new meaning; and in general the web of connections between facts and theories is expanded and rearranged. This is Kuhn’s famous “paradigm shift.” And since the new paradigm so reorients our vision, it will be impossible to directly compare it with the older one; it will be as if practitioners from the two paradigms speak different languages or inhabit different worlds.

This scandalized some, and delighted others, and for the same reason: that Kuhn seemed to be arguing that scientific knowledge is socially solipsistic. That is to say that scientific “truth” was only true because it was given credence by the scientific community. Thus no paradigm can be said to be objectively “better” than another, and science cannot be said to really “advance.” Science was reduced to a series of fashionable ideas.

Scientists were understandably peeved by the notion, and social scientists concomitantly delighted, since it meant their discipline was at the crux of scientific knowledge. But Kuhn repeatedly denied being a relativist, and I think the text bears him out. It must be said, however, that Kuhn does not guard against this relativistic interpretation of his work as much as, in retrospect, he should have. I believe this was because Kuhn’s primary aim was to undermine the positivistic, gradualist account of science—which was fairly universally held in the past—and not to replace it with a fully worked-out theory of scientific progress himself. (And this is ironic since Kuhn himself argues that an old paradigm is never abandoned until a new paradigm takes its place.)

Though Kuhn does say a good deal about this, I think he could have emphasized more strongly the ways that paradigms contribute positively to reliable scientific knowledge. For we simply cannot look on the world as neutral observers; and even if we could, we would not be any the wiser for it. The very process of learning involves limiting possibilities. This is literally what happens to our brains as we grow up: the confused mass of neural connections is pruned, leaving only the ones which have proven useful in our environment. If our brains did not quickly and efficiently analyze environmental stimuli into familiar categories, we could hardly survive a day. The world would be a swirling, jumbled chaos.

Reducing ambiguities is so important to our survival that I think one of the primary functions of human culture is to further eliminate possibilities. For humans, being born with considerable behavioral flexibility, must learn to become inflexible, so to speak, in order to live effectively in a group. All communication presupposes a large degree of agreement within members of a community; and since we are born lacking this, we must be taught fairly rigid sets of assumptions in order to create the necessary accord. In science this process is performed in a much more formalized way, but nevertheless its end is the same: to allow communication and cooperation via a shared language and a shared view of the world.

Yet this is no argument for epistemological relativism, any more than the existence of incompatible moral systems is an argument for moral relativism. While people commonly call themselves cultural relativists when it comes to morals, few people are really willing to argue that, say, unprovoked violence is morally praiseworthy in certain situations. What people mean by calling themselves relativists is that they are pluralists: they acknowledge that incompatible social arrangements can nevertheless be equally ethical. Whether a society has private property or holds everything in common, whether it is monogamous or polygamous, whether burping is considered polite or rude—these may vary, and yet create coherent, mutually incompatible, ethical systems. Furthermore, acknowledging the possibility of equally valid ethical systems also does not rule out the possibility of moral progress, as any given ethical system may contain flaws (such as refusing to respect certain categories of people) that can be corrected over time.

I believe that Kuhn would argue that scientific cultures may be thought of in the same pluralistic way: paradigms can be improved, and incompatible paradigms can nevertheless both have some validity. Acknowledging this does not force one to abandon the concept of “knowledge,” any more than acknowledging cultural differences in etiquette forces one to abandon the concept of “politeness.”

Thus accepting Kuhn’s position does not force one to embrace epistemological relativism—or, at least not the strong variety, which reduces knowledge merely to widespread belief. I would go further, and argue that Kuhn’s account of science—or at least elements of his account—can be made to articulate even with the system of his reputed nemesis, Karl Popper. For both conceptions have the scientist beginning, not with observations and facts, but with certain arbitrary assumptions and expectations. This may sound unpromising; but these assumptions and expectations, by orienting our vision, allow us to realize when we are mistaken, and to revise our theories. The Baconian inductivist or the logical positivist, by beginning with an raw mass of data, has little idea how to make sense of it and thus no basis upon which to judge whether an observation is anomalous or not.

This is not where the resemblance ends. According to both Kuhn and Popper (though the former is describing while the second is prescribing), when we are revising our theories we should if possible modify or discard the least fundamental part, while leaving the underlying paradigm unchanged. This is Kuhn’s “normal science.” So when irregularities were observed in Uranus’ orbit, the scientists could have either discarded Newton’s theories (fundamental to the discipline) or the theory that Uranus was the furthest planet in the solar system (a superficial fact); obviously the latter was preferable, and this led to the discovery of Neptune. Science could not survive if scientists too willingly overturned the discoveries and theories of their discipline. A certain amount of stubbornness is a virtue in learning.

Obviously, the two thinkers also disagree about much. One issue is whether two paradigms can be directly compared or definitively tested. Popper envisions conclusive experiments whose outcome can unambiguously decide whether one paradigm or another is to be preferred. There are some difficulties to this view, however, which Kuhn points out. One is that different paradigms may attach very different importance to certain phenomena. Thus for Galileo (to use Kuhn’s example) a pendulum is a prime exemplar of motion, while to an Aristotelian a pendulum is a highly complex secondary phenomenon, unfit to demonstrate the fundamental properties of motion. Another difficulty in comparing theories is that terms may be defined differently. Einstein said that massive objects bend space, but Newtonian space is not a thing at all and so cannot be bent.

Granting the difficulties of comparing different paradigms, I nevertheless think that Kuhn is mistaken in his insistence that they are as separate as two languages. I believe his argument rests, in part, on his conceiving of a paradigm as beginning with definitions of fundamental terms (such as “space” or “time”) which are circular (such as “time is that measured by clocks,” etc.); so that comparing two paradigms would be like comparing Euclidian and non-Euclidian geometry to see which is more “true,” though both are equally true to their own axioms (while mutually incompatible). Yet such terms in science do not merely define, but denote phenomena in our experience. Thus (to continue the example) while Euclidian and non-Euclidian geometries may both be equally valid according to their premises, they may not be equally valid according to how they describe our experience.

Kuhn’s response to this would be, I believe, that we cannot have neutral experiences, but all our observations are already theory-laden. While this is true, it is also true that theory does not totally determine our vision; and clever experimenters can often, I believe, devise tests that can differentiate between paradigms to most practitioners’ satisfaction. Nevertheless, as both Kuhn and Popper would admit, the decision to abandon one theory for another can never be a wholly rational affair, since there is no way of telling whether the old paradigm could, with sufficient ingenuity, be made to accommodate the anomalous data; and in any case a strange phenomena can always be tabled as a perplexing but unimportant deviation for future researchers to tackle. This is how an Aristotelian would view Galileo’s pendulum, I believe.

Yet this fact—that there can be no objective, fool-proof criteria for switching paradigms—is no reason to despair. We are not prophets; every decision we take involves risk that it will not pan out; and in this respect science is no different. What makes science special is not that it is purely rational or wholly objective, but that our guesses are systematically checked against our experience and debated within a community of dedicated inquirers. All knowledge contains an imaginative and thus an arbitrary element; but this does not mean that anything goes. To use a comparison, a painter working on a portrait will have to make innumerable little decisions during her work; and yet—provided the painter is working within a tradition that values literal realism—her work will be judged, not for the taste displayed, but for the perceived accuracy. Just so, science is not different from other cultural realms in lacking arbitrary elements, but in the shared values that determine how the final result is judged.

I think that Kuhn would assent to this; and I think it was only the widespread belief that science was as objective, asocial, and unimaginative as a camera taking a photograph that led him to emphasize the social and arbitrary aspects of science so strongly. This is why, contrary to his expectations, so many people read his work as advocating total relativism.

It should be said, however, that Kuhn’s position does alter how we normally think of “truth.” In this I also find him strikingly close to his reputed nemesis, Popper. For here is the Austrian philosopher on the quest for truth:

Science never pursues the illusory aim of making its answers final, or even probable. Its advance is, rather, towards the infinite yet attainable aim of ever discovering new, deeper, and more general problems, and of subjecting its ever tentative answers to ever renewed and ever more rigorous tests.

And here is what his American counterpart has to say:

Later scientific theories are better than earlier ones for solving puzzles in the often quite different environments to which they are applied. That is not a relativist’s position, and it displays the sense in which I am a convinced believer in scientific progress.

Here is another juxtaposition. Popper says:

Science is not a system of certain, or well-established, statements; nor is it a system which steadily advances towards a state of finality. Our science is not knowledge (episteme): it can never claim to have attained truth, or even a substitute for it, such as probability. … We do not know: we can only guess. And our guesses are guided by the unscientific, the metaphysical (though biologically explicable) faith in laws, in regularities which we can uncover—discover.

And Kuhn:

One often hears that successive theories grow ever closer to, or approximate more and more closely to, the truth… Perhaps there is some other way of salvaging the notion of ‘truth’ for application to whole theories, but this one will not do. There is, I think, no theory-independent way to reconstruct phrases like ‘really there’; the notion of a match between the ontology of a theory and its ‘real’ counterpart in nature now seems to me illusive in principle.

Though there are important differences, to me it is striking how similar their accounts of scientific progress are: the ever-increasing expansion of problems, or puzzles, that the scientist may investigate. And both thinkers are careful to point out that this expansion cannot be understood as an approach towards an ultimate “true” explanation of everything, and I think their reasons for saying so are related. For since Popper begins with theories, and Kuhn with paradigms—both of which stem from the imagination of scientists—their accounts of knowledge can never be wholly “objective,” but must contain an aforementioned arbitrary element. This necessarily leaves open the possibility that an incompatible theory may yet do an equal or better job in making sense of an observation, or that a heretofore undiscovered phenomenon may violate the theory. And this being so, we can never say that we have reached an “ultimate” explanation, where our theory can be taken as a perfect mirror of reality.

I do not think this notion jeopardizes the scientific enterprise. To the contrary, I think that science is distinguished from older, metaphysical sorts of enquiry in that it is always open-ended, and makes no claim to possessing absolute “truth.” It is this very corrigibility of science that is its strength.

This review has already gone on for far too long, and much of it has been spent riding my own hobby-horse without evaluating the book. Yet I think it is a testament to Kuhn’s work that it is still so rich and suggestive, even after many of its insights have been absorbed into the culture. Though I have tried to defend Kuhn from accusations of relativism or undermining science, anyone must admit that this book has many flaws. One is Kuhn’s firm line between “normal” science and paradigm shifts. In his model, the first consists of mere puzzle-solving while the second involves a radical break with the past. But I think experience does not bear out this hard dichotomy; discoveries and innovations may be revolutionary to different degrees, which I think undermines Kuhn’s picture of science evolving as a punctuated equilibrium.

Another weakness of Kuhn’s work is that it does not do justice to the way that empirical discoveries may cause unanticipated theoretical revolutions. In his model, major theoretical innovations are the products of brilliant practitioners who see the field in a new way. But this does not accurately describe what happened when, say, DNA was discovered. Watson and Crick worked within the known chemical paradigm, and operated like proper Popperians in brainstorming and eliminating possibilities based on the evidence. And yet the discovery of DNA’s double helix, while not overturning any major theoretical paradigms, nevertheless had such far-reaching implications that it caused a revolution in the field. Kuhn has little to say about events like this, which shows that his model is overly simplistic.

I must end here, after thrashing about ineffectually in multiple disciples in which I am not even the rankest amateur. What I hoped to re-capture in this review was the intellectual excitement I felt while reading this little volume. In somewhat dry (though not technical) academic prose, Kuhn caused a revolution that still forceful enough to make me dizzy.

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Review: The Logic of Scientific Discovery

Review: The Logic of Scientific Discovery

The Logic of Scientific DiscoveryThe Logic of Scientific Discovery by Karl R. Popper

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We do not know: we can only guess.

Karl Popper originally wrote Logik der Forchung (The Logic of Research) in 1934. This original version—published in haste to secure an academic position and escape the threat of Nazism (Popper was of Jewish descent)—was heavily condensed at the publisher’s request; and because of this, and because it remained untranslated from the German, the book did not receive the attention it deserved. This had to wait until 1959, when Popper finally released a revised and expanded English translation. Yet this condensation and subsequent expansion have left their mark on the book. Popper makes his most famous point within the first few dozen pages; and much of the rest of the book is given over to dead controversies, criticisms and rejoinders, technical appendices, and extended footnotes. It does not make for the most graceful reading experience.

This hardly matters, however, since it is here that Popper put forward what has arguably become the most famous concept in the philosophy of science: falsification.

This term is widely used; but its original justification is not, I believe, widely understood. Popper’s doctrine must be understood as a response to inductivism. Now, in 1620 Francis Bacon released his brilliant Novum Organum. Its title alludes to Aristotle’s Organon, a collection of logical treatises, mainly focusing on how to make accurate deductions. This Aristotelian method—dominated by syllogisms: deriving conclusions from given premises—dominated the study of nature for millennia, with precious little to show for it. Francis Bacon hoped to change all that with his new doctrine of induction. Instead of beginning with premises (‘All men are mortal’), and reasoning to conclusions (‘Socrates is mortal’), the investigator must begin with experiences (‘Socrates died,’ ‘Plato died,’ etc.) and then generalize a conclusion (‘All men are mortal’). This was how science was to proceed: from the specific to the general.

This seemed all fine and dandy until, in 1738, David Hume published his Treatise of Human Nature, in which he explained his infamous ‘problem of induction.’ Here is the idea. If you see one, two, three… a dozen… a thousand… a million white swans, and not a single black one, it is still illogical to conclude “All swans are white.” Even if you investigated every swan in the world but one, and they all proved white, you still could not conclude with certainty that the last one would be white. Aside from modus tollens (concluding from a negative specific to a negative general), here is no logically justifiable way to proceed from the specific to the general. To this argument, many are tempted to respond: “But we know from experience that induction works. We generalize all the time.” Yet this is to use induction to prove that induction works, which is paradoxical. Hume’s problem of induction has proven to be a stumbling block for philosophers ever since.

In the early parts of the 20th century, the doctrine of logical positivism arose in the philosophical world, particularly in the ‘Vienna Circle’. This had many proponents and many forms, but the basic idea, as explained by A.J. Ayer, is the following. The meaning of a sentence is equivalent to its verification; and verification is performed through experience. Thus the sentence “The cat is on the mat” can be verified by looking at the mat; it is a meaningful utterance. But the sentence “The world is composed of mind” cannot be verified by any experience; it is meaningless. Using this doctrine the positivists hoped to eliminate all metaphysics. Unfortunately, however, the doctrine also eliminates human knowledge, since, as Hume showed, generalizations can never be verified. No experience corresponds, for example, to the statement: “Gravitation is proportional to the product of mass and the inverse square of distance,” since this is an unlimitedly general statement, and experiences are always particular.

Karl Popper’s falsificationism is meant to solve this problem. First, it is important to note that Popper is not, like the positivists, proposing a criterion of ‘meaning’. That is to say that, for Popper, unfalsifiable statements can still be meaningful; they just do not tell us anything about the world. Indeed, he continually notes how metaphysical ideas (such as Kepler’s idea that circles are more ‘perfect’ than other shapes) have inspired and guided scientists. This is itself an important distinction because it prevents him from falling into the same paradox as the positivists. For if only the statements with empirical content have meaning, then the statement “only the statements with empirical content have meaning” is itself meaningless. Popper, for his part, regarded himself as the enemy of linguistic philosophy and considered the problem of epistemology quite distinct from language analysis.

To return to falsification, Popper’s fundamental insight is that verification and falsification are not symmetrical. While no general statement can be proved using a specific instance, a general statement can indeed be disproved with a specific instance. A thousand white swans does not prove all swans are white; but one black swan disproves it. (This is the aforementioned modus tollens.) All this may seem trivial; but as Popper realized, this changes the nature of scientific knowledge as we know it. For science, then, is far from what Bacon imagined it to be—a carefully sifted catalogue of experiences, a collection of well-founded generalizations—and is rather a collection of theories which spring up, as it were, from the imagination of the scientist in the hopes of uniting several observed phenomena under one hypothesis. Or to put it more bluntly: a good scientific theory is a guess that does not prove wrong.

With his central doctrine established, Popper goes on to the technicalities. He discusses what composes the ‘range’ or ‘scope’ of a theory, and how some theories can be said to encompass others. He provides an admirable justification for Occam’s Razor—the preference for simpler over more complex explanations—since theories with fewer parameters are more easily falsified and thus, in his view, more informative. The biggest section is given over to probability. I admit that I had some difficulty following his argument at times, but the gist of his point is that probability must be interpreted ‘objectively,’ as frequency distributions, rather than ‘subjectively,’ as degrees of certainty, in order to be falsifiable; and also that the statistical results of experiments must be reproducible in order to avoid the possibility of statistical flukes.

All this leads up to a strangely combative section on quantum mechanics. Popper apparently was in the same camp as Einstein, and was put off by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Like Einstein, Popper was a realist and did not like the idea that a particle’s properties could be actually undetermined; he wanted to see the uncertainty of quantum mechanics as a byproduct of measurement or of ‘hidden variables’—not as representing something real about the universe. And like Einstein (though less famously) Popper proposed an experiment to decide the issue. The original experiment, as described in this book, was soon shown to be flawed; but a revised experiment was finally conducted in 1999, after Popper’s death. Though the experiment agreed with Popper’s prediction (showing that measuring an entangled photon does not affect its pair), it had no bearing on Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which restricts arbitrarily precise measurements on a single particle, not a pair of particles.

Incidentally, it is difficult to see why Popper is so uncomfortable with the uncertainty principle. Given his own dogma of falsifiability, the belief that nature is inherently deterministic (and that probabilistic theories are simply the result of a lack of our own knowledge) should be discarded as metaphysical. This is just one example of how Popper’s personality was out of harmony with his own doctrines. An advocate of the open society, he was famously authoritarian in his private life, which led to his own alienation. This is neither here nor there, but it is an interesting comment on the human animal.

Popper’s doctrine, like all great ideas, has proven both influential and controversial. For my part I think falsification a huge advance over Bacon’s induction or the positivists’ verification. And despite the complications, I think that falsifiability is a crucial test to distinguish, not only science from pseudo-science, but all dependable knowledge from myth. For both pseudo-science and myth generally distinguish themselves by admirably fitting the data set, but resisting falsification. Freud’s theories, for example, can accommodate themselves to any set of facts we throw at them; likewise for intelligent design, belief in supernatural beings, or conspiracy theories. All of these seem to explain everything—and in a way they do, since they fit the observable data—but really explain nothing, since they can accommodate any new observation.

There are some difficulties with falsification, of course. The first is observation. For what we observe, or even what we count as an ‘observation’, is colored by our background beliefs. Whether to regard a dot in the sky as a plane, a UFO, or an angel is shaped by the beliefs we already hold; thus it is possible to disregard observations that run counter to our theories, rather than falsifying the theories. What is more, theories never exist in isolation, but in an entire context of beliefs; so if one prediction is definitively falsified, it can still be unclear what we must change in our interconnected edifice of theories. Further, it is rare for experimental predictions to agree exactly with results; usually they are approximately correct. But where do we draw the line between falsification and approximate correctness? And last, if we formulate a theory which withstands test after test, predicting their results with extreme accuracy time and again, must we still regard the theory as a provisional guess?

To give Popper credit, he responds to all of these points in this work, though perhaps not with enough discussion. But all these criticisms belie the fact that so much of the philosophy of science written after Popper has taken his work as a starting point, either attempting to amplify, modify, or (dare I say it?) falsify his claims. For my part, though I was often bored by the dry style and baffled by the technical explanations, I found myself admiring Popper’s careful methodology: responding to criticisms, making fine distinctions, building up his system piece by piece. Here is a philosopher deeply committed to the ideal of rational argument and deeply engaged with understanding the world. I am excited to read more.

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Review: Protagoras & Meno

Review: Protagoras & Meno

ProtagorasProtagoras by Plato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

But you cannot buy the wares of knowledge and carry them away in another vessel; when you have paid for them you must receive them into the soul and go your way, either greatly harmed or greatly benefited

In style the Protagoras is intermediate between the questioning Socrates of the early dialogues and the doctrinizing Socrates of the Gorgias. Here, Socrates is not only concerned in revealing the confusion of common notions, but also in advancing his own theories; yet the dialogue ends on an inconclusive note and, what is more, the ideas that Socrates advances are not the ones we recognize as Plato’s own mature philosophy.

As in the Gorgias, Socrates enters a gathering of sophists and their admirers, with the intent of questioning the practice of Sophism. Unlike Gorgias the rhetorician, however, Protagoras the sophist proves himself to be a formidable opponent. Indeed, in the beginning of the dialogue Protagoras has the upper hand, effectively resolving Socrates’ doubts regarding the teachability of virtue.

Socrates questions whether virtue can be taught, because, if virtue is teachable, then why do good men have bad sons? And why are their no specialists in virtue, as there are specialists in medicine and carpentry? Protagoras counters, first, with a myth about the origin of virtue, explaining that it was a gift of Zeus to all humans. Thus everyone is capable of virtue, and everyone is a teacher of virtue according to her ability; indeed you might say that virtue is taught all the time every day, just like Greek is. To illustrate the point, Protagoras uses a thought experiment involving a society where everyone played the flute. In such a society, some good men would likely have sons who were subpar flute players; but even the worst player in that society would likely be adept relative to a non flute-based society.

To drive home the point, Protagoras observes that punishment would be unreasonable if virtue were not teachable. For to punish as pure retribution is irrational and beastly—naked vengeance, which may satisfy anger but which will not undo any past wrongs. Punishment can only be rational if it is directed towards the future: to correct the wrongdoer and to discourage any others from following her example. The fact that the Athenians punish therefore proves that they believe that virtue can be taught.

Socrates uncharacteristically declares himself wholly satisfied and convinced by this answer. But one doubt remains: Are the parts of virtue, such as wisdom, courage, or piety, all independent, or are they all different names for the same basic thing? Protagoras at first asserts them to be different; a person may be courageous but impious, for example. However, Socrates trips him up with a question about opposites. Does everything have only one opposite? Yes, says Protagoras. So everything that is not wise is foolish? Of course. Then it is possible for piety to be foolish? At this Protagoras hesitates, and attempts to stop the conversation. Meanwhile, Socrates puts forth his doctrine that virtue is knowledge, specifically knowledge of pleasure and pain; and that this knowledge allows us to accurately estimate the pleasant and painful consequences of actions, and to make the best choice. (Plato would not persist with this position.)

In the course of this argument, Socrates and Protagoras have a dispute about the length of their responses. After Protagoras gives a little speech in answer to a question, Socrates professes himself too forgetful to follow long utterances, and requests that Protagoras stick with short answers. (This request is made to Gorgias, too.) Protagoras bristles at this and wants to quit; it takes the surrounding party to convince him to carry on. This seems to have been one of Socrates’ (and Plato’s) main complaints against the sophists, namely that they conceal poor reasoning in extended eloquent speeches. Plato also takes the opportunity to poke fun at those who argue by quoting and interpreting poems, putting a long and wholly implausible interpretation of a poem in Socrates’ mouth, thus illustrating that with sufficient ingenuity any meaning can be extracted from any poem.

The combatants disperse as friends and Socrates lives to argue another day.


MenoMeno by Plato

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

And how will you enquire, Socrates, into that which you do not know? What will you put forth as the subject of enquiry? And if you find what you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you did not know?

Reading this dialogue immediately after reading the Protagoras confronts the reader with the mystery of Plato. For here are two dialogues, both about the same questions—What is virtue? Can it be taught?—and coming to opposite conclusions. And this leads to still more questions: Was Plato’s own opinion changing? Or was he representing Socrates’ opinions in one dialogue and his own opinions in another? Or did Socrates’ own opinion change? Or is it some other mixture of reported and original thought? It is impossible to know the answer—but that has never stopped philosophers.

The Meno is a fine example of Plato’s economy. Not a word is wasted in this dialogue. We begin with the inquiry and jump straight into difficulties. Can virtue be taught? Well, what is virtue? Meno says that each type of person has their own virtue—women, men, slaves, citizens, children, adults, and so on. To which Socrates responds that these virtues, qua being virtues, must all have at least one quality in common. (Here Wittgenstein would interject.) Then Meno throws up his hands, declares himself stunned, and offers his famous paradox (quoted above).

Socrates weasels his way out of this with the Platonic doctrine of remembrance. What if we are born (rather, reborn) already filled with true knowledge, and must merely remember what our souls learned during their sojourns in heaven. He demonstrates by leading one of Meno’s young slaves through a mathematical demonstration of square roots. By making the correct deductions, the boy is able to find the right conclusions, from which Socrates concludes that the boy “knew” the information all along. (Though this conclusion will likely strike most of us as absurd, one must keep in mind that, for Plato, all empirical knowledge—knowledge gained through the senses—was not truly knowledge at all, since the observed world changes, but the Truth remains forever eternal.)

The slave boy retreats, enlightened but not emancipated (depressingly, not even great thinkers had scruples about slavery back then), and Socrates and Meno return to the original question. Anytus the politician then appears, whom Socrates uses to prove that the sons of great men are often rather ordinary as far as virtue is concerned, which prompts Anytus to warn Socrates not to slander citizens (he would later be an accuser of Socrates during his trial). There are two possible explanations for this: Either virtue cannot be taught, in which case it is not knowledge; or these great men did not themselves possess the knowledge of virtue.

This second option is pursued by Socrates, who makes a delicate division between “knowledge” and “true opinion.” These may sound identical, but for Socrates the latter is distinguished by not being properly justified. If, for example, I guess that a book of poetry is under the table, and it is under the table, I have true opinion, since I was correct, but not knowledge, since my being correct was fortuitous. Socrates concludes that these great men acted virtuously from true opinion—vouchsafed by the gods—and not real knowledge, since they could not transmit their virtue.

As a teacher myself, I cannot help being interested in the questions of this dialogue. For me, the fundamental paradox was aptly summed up by Gibbon: “the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those dispositions where it is almost superfluous.” That is, teaching will most benefit those who least need teachers, since they are motivated to learn on their own, and vice versa. This seems to apply as much to mathematics as it does to virtue. Can a virtuous Hadrian whip a vicious Commodus into shape? I am skeptical. And yet, it is this quixotic task I have set before me.

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Review: Early Socratic Dialogues

Review: Early Socratic Dialogues

ApologyApology by Plato

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is perhaps the most iconic of Plato’s works, the closest thing that philosophy has to a Sermon on the Mount. And just as with our Biblical narratives, the dialogue presents a historical difficulty. To what extent is this speech fact, and to what extent invention? The only other record we have of the trial is from Xenophon, who wasn’t even there. Plato was there—or at least he asserts that he was—and yet it beggars belief that the young, would-be amanuensis could retain the entire speech in his mind after one hearing, or that he could write it down with tolerable accuracy as the events unfolded. It seems far more likely (to me at least) that this speech is more or less a fabrication made well after the fact, attempting to preserve the flavor and impression of Socrates’ final speech but not the exact words themselves.

All speculation notwithstanding, the essential facts are preserved: Socrates was accused of denying the gods and of corrupting the youth, made a bold and waggish defense of himself, was convicted, refused to mitigate the consequences, and triumphantly accepted the death penalty. Yet what really emerges from this speech is not a record of events but the portrait of a man.

Here Plato reveals himself to be a writer of the highest order. Fact or fiction, Plato’s Socrates is one of the great characters of literature. Though Socrates’ life is at stake, he does not falter for a moment. He treats the accusations with amusement, dismissing them with playful arguments that reveal his absolute indifference to the outcome. Far from bowing and scraping to preserve his life, Socrates flaunts his superiority to his accusers, couching his boasts in an ironical humility. He is a man in perfect control of himself and in perfect peace with the world.

Even if the real Socrates was truly this remarkable, it would have taken a writer of exquisite talent to effectively render him in prose. And if this is largely Plato’s invention, we must rank him along with Shakespeare, for Socrates utters now-famous phrases nearly as quickly as Hamlet. Western philosophy could not have asked for a more rousing beginning.


CritoCrito by Plato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The saga of Socrates’ trial and death continues. This time his friend, Crito, visits him in his cell to try to persuade him to escape into exile. Socrates is true to form, insisting that nothing—not the reputation of himself or his friend, nor concern for his own life—ought to be considered except reason. Crito must attempt to persuade Socrates to escape. The dialogue ends with the famous personification of the Laws of Athens, in the course of which Plato hits upon one of the earliest formulations of the social contract: by living in Athens, Socrates implicitly agrees to be bound by her laws. Since Socrates’ enjoyed the benefits of the laws, he must accept their penalties.

More so than in the Apology, one feels here that this is Plato’s invention and not something that actually occurred. The dialogue seems especially crafted to rehabilitate Socrates’ reputation, portraying the old philosopher as a dutiful citizen with a patriotic love of Athens. As a piece of drama the dialogue is one of Plato’s finest. It has considerable philosophic importance, too, for its aforementioned prefiguring of the social contract. Nevertheless I confess that I find Socrates’ reasoning extremely thin. Surely laws may be unjust; and a law may be just in itself and yet unjust or mistaken in its execution. If that is so, should the citizen passively accept it simply because it is the law? One senses the fine Socratic irony here, too, arguing playfully rather than sincerely. Socrates surely had compelling reasons to accept his death—but one doubts that pure patriotic regard of law was the whole of it.


CharmidesCharmides by Plato

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of the early inconclusive Socratic dialogues. Socrates, just come back from fighting in the Peloponnesian War, meets two of Plato’s relatives, Critias and Charmides. The latter of these is portrayed as a handsome youth, graceful of form and pure of mind. (Ironically enough, after the disastrous defeat of Athens in the war, both Critias and Charmides went on to become members of the Thirty Tyrants.) Socrates takes the opportunity to question Charmides about a Greek term that is rather unsatisfactorily translated into English as “temperance.”

The conversation takes many twists and turns, following the normal Socratic procedure: a definition is proposed (in this case, living quietly), an exception to the definition is found, a new one is proposed, and the process continues. As often happens in these early dialogues, the conversants seem to only get further from the point the longer they speak, getting hopelessly lost in the weeds of dialectic. Here we also see a quality that commonly irks readers of Plato, the tendency of Socrates’ interlocutors to give their unwavering assent to whatever rhetorical question, thought experiment, or logical distinction that Socrates poses, even when obviously fallacious. We also see Plato’s early tendency to get wrapped up in merely verbal confusions that hardly make sense when translated.

In any case, the dialogue takes an interesting turn when Critias proposes that temperance is a kind of meta-knowledge, the knowledge of knowledge. But how could we know for sure whether we knew something or not? And besides, how would that knowledge be useful? Merely knowing that we knew the art of medicine, for example, would be inconsequential compared to the knowledge of medicine itself. But how could temperance be inconsequential knowledge, if it is an important and noble attribute? The dialogue proceeds thus, seeming to intentionally confuse the issue through its series of involutions. But Plato will return to these questions with a vengeance.


LachesLaches by Plato

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Here is another of the inconclusive dialogues. Socrates is asked by a couple of older men, Lysimachus and Melesias, whether to educate their sons in the art of fighting in armor. Socrates characteristically shifts the theme to a more abstract inquiry: What is courage? Commonsense definitions—such as “to stand and fight” or “to endure”—are quickly eliminated as admitting of exceptions. Nicias, a well-educated general, then proposes that courage is a certain kind of knowledge: that of future good and evil. After further dialectical maneuvering, the conversants find that they have gotten too general and have defined all of virtue and goodness, while leaving the specific nature of courage undefined. Socrates shrugs his shoulders and they break for lunch.

Though the question of courage is of somewhat limited philosophical interest, I do think that Plato hits upon the oft-overlooked role of knowledge (or lack of knowledge) in this seemingly physical or emotional virtue. This is characteristic of Plato, of course, for whom knowledge and goodness are tightly linked. Argument aside, the well-drawn characters of this dialogue are yet another example of Plato’s talent as a dramatist.


LysisLysis by Plato

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This dialogue is normally grouped along with Laches and Charmides as an early, inconclusive dialogue. They are also alike in providing amusing portraits of life in Athens. This dialogue, for example, has a humorous beginning. Ctesippus complains to Socrates that Hippothales is always going on about his great love for the beautiful youth, Lysis, and composing horrid love poems in honor of his beloved. Socrates chides Hippothales and professes to demonstrate the correct way to speak to a beloved. What commences from this, however, is a rather ordinary Socratic interrogation—this time about the relationship of privilege to knowledge—which I doubt was very useful to the would-be wooer.

The topic of the dialogue then abruptly shifts to the nature of friendship. My general impression from reading Ancient Greek writings it that friendship was a far more important institution for the Greeks than it is for us. In any case Socrates and his interlocutors make little headway with this seemingly obvious problem. Is friendship the attraction of like to like? of like to unlike? of good to good? of neutral to good?—and so on, until they call it quits. I do think that the nature of friendship, which we are wont to take for granted, is an interesting topic to explore. But this dialogue contains, at best, only suggestions for future investigation.


MenexenusMenexenus by Plato

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This work hardly merits the term “dialogue,” being mainly taken up by a lengthy speech. Socrates professes to have learned a funeral oration from a woman named Apia, who was Pericles’ consort. Plato seems to have been simultaneously parodying the practice of giving these speeches, but also proving his superiority to other writers of the genre, particularly Thucydides. If it was Plato’s goal to best the historian, he fell far short; and nowadays the speech reads like a silly rhetorical exercise, albeit of some historic importance.


IonIon by Plato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This lovely little dialogue, one of Plato’s shortest works, involves Socrates and the rhapsode, Ion. Ion is a rhapsode, which means that he recites, embellishes, and interprets poetry. In Ion’s case he is specialized in Homer, and admits that he knows nothing about any other poet. Socrates pounces upon this. How is it possible to master the best and most difficult of something, and leave the rest untouched? Also, how can Ion give sensible interpretations of the events of Homer’s poetry, when he does not have any of the skills—fishing, sailing, leading armies, and so on—mentioned in the poems?
Ion is not the brightest fellow, and is not able to give any sensible answer to these questions.

Socrates presses his point that Ion has no real knowledge and instead practices his art through inspiration. This, of course, is a famous Platonic assertion, which reappears many times throughout his works. However, I find his reasoning supremely unconvincing here. There is no absurdity in only understanding Homer and no other poet; poetry is not mathematics, with the more complex manifestations derived from the simpler. Further, there is no absurdity in being able to interpret a poetic passage about fishing while knowing fairly little about fishing itself. These ideas apparently did not occur to Ion (or Plato). But the simplicity of Ion, who is oblivious to Socrates’ irony, is winsome enough to make this a delightful read.


EuthyphroEuthyphro by Plato

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Euthyphro begins the story of the trial and death of Socrates. It is one of Plato’s best known and, I think, best executed pieces. Here we see the Socratic dialogue form stripped to its bare essentials, with only two speakers, one problem, and minimal framing. Socrates is on his way to his trial; he has been accused, among other things, of impiety. He meets Euthyphro, a soothsayer, who is on his way to his own trial; he is prosecuting his father for murder, after his father’s negligence led to the death of a worker who had, himself, killed a slave. Socrates asks Euthyphro how he can be sure that this prosecution is the right thing to do, which leads to a discussion of piety.

The argument takes many turns, of course, but boils down to the famous Euthyphro dilemma: Is an action pious because it is beloved by the gods, or beloved by the gods because it is pious? While this may seem like mere sophistry, the implications of this question are immensely destructive to theistic ethical codes. For if morality exists independently of God (or, in other words, if we can know what is right or wrong without consulting the divine will) why consider God the fountain of good? And if morality is defined by the will of a God, how can we know what that will is? Perhaps via revelation: but then how distinguish legitimate and fake revelation? For if morality had no existence except the will of God, then no revelation, however apparently abominable, could be discounted. And since eyewitness testimony is nefariously unreliable, virtually no test would be able to unequivocally determine which “revelation” was to be followed. The only way out of the dilemma is to accept that good and bad can be distinguished without any supernatural considerations.

Euthyphro is, thus, of immense philosophical interest. It is also a dramatic masterpiece. Socrates’ ironic demeanor in dealing with the dense Euthyphro is delicious. Perhaps in no other work has Plato so convincingly shown the contrast between the reflective and the non-reflective mind. I continually found myself chuckling as I read. Yet again I am amazed that Plato, who started the Western philosophic tradition, remains its most able writer.

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Review: Gorgias

Review: Gorgias

GorgiasGorgias by Plato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

… for philosophy, Socrates, if pursued in moderation and at the proper age, is an elegant accomplishment, but too much philosophy is the ruin of human life.

Gorgias is easily one of Plato’s best stand-alone dialogues. Indeed, as others have mentioned, it often reads like a germinal version of the Republic, so closely does it track the same themes. A transitional dialogue, the early know-nothing Socrates of unanswered questions is already gone; instead we get Socrates espousing some of Plato’s key positions on truth and morality.

Socrates descends on a party of rhetoricians, seemingly determined to expose them. He questions Gorgias, a well-known teacher of rhetoric, in the attempt to pinpoint what, exactly, rhetoric consists of. We get the usual Socratic paradoxes: if we ought to be convinced by knowledgeable people—a doctor when it comes to medicine, an architect when it comes to buildings—how can somebody who lacks this knowledge teach the art of convincing?

Gorgias insists that rhetoric is used to accomplish justice. But is Gorgias an expert on justice? No. Are his pupils already just? Neither. And cannot rhetoric be used for unjust ends? Of course. This effectively trips up the old rhetorician. Gorgias’ energetic young pupil, Polus, steps up to defend the old master. He denies what Gorgias said about rhetoric being used to accomplish justice, and instead claims that it is used to gain power.

This brings Socrates to another one of his paradoxes: that powerful orators are actually to be pitied, since inflicting injustice is worse than suffering injustice. Though Polus laughs, Socrates trips him up just as they did his mentor, by getting him to assent to a seemingly unobjectionable proposition and then deducing from them surprising conclusions. (Socrates was not, you see, without his own rhetorical tricks.) Polus finds himself agreeing that tyrants are to be pitied.

At this, Callicles enters the fray, not a rhetorician but an Athenian gentleman and a man of affairs, who plays the same role that Thrasymachus plays in the Republic. He scorns philosophy and insults Socrates. All this highfalutin’ talk of justice and truth and such rubbish. Doesn’t Socrates know that what is right is a mere convention and justice is simply whatever the strong wish? Socrates then embarks on his usual procedure, trying to get Callicles to assent to a proposition that is incompatible with Callicles’ position. Callicles eventually gets confused and tired and gives up, allowing Socrates to finish with a grand speech and a Platonic myth about the judgment of souls.

To the modern reader very little in this dialogue will be convincing. Plato is no doubt right that rhetoric is, at best, neither bad nor good, but is akin to cosmetics or cooking rather than exercise or medicine—the art of pleasing rather than improving people. Yet since we have learned that we cannot trust people to be selfless, disinterested seekers after the truth—as Socrates repeatedly claims to be—we have decided that it’s best to let self-interested parties compete with all the tools at their disposal for their audience’s attention. Heaven knows this procedure is far from perfect and leaves us vulnerable to demagogues. But the world has proven depressingly bereft of pure souls like Socrates.

Also unconvincing is Plato’s moral stance—namely, that those who commit injustice are to be pitied rather than envied. He proves, of course, that the unjust are more deserving of punishment than the just; this was never in doubt. But he does not, and cannot, prove that the unjust are less happy—since a single jolly tyrant would refute his whole chain of reasoning. Indeed, by establishing a moral precept that is so independent of happiness, Socrates falls into the same plight as did Kant in his categorical imperative. This is a serious difficulty, since, if acting justly can easily lead to unhappiness, what is the motivation to do so? The only way out of this dilemma, as both thinkers seemed to realize, was to hypothesize an afterlife where everyone got their just desserts—the good their reward and the bad their castigation. Needless to say I do not find this solution compelling.

Yet you can disagree with all of Plato’s positions and still relish this dialogue. This is because, as usual, the most charming thing about Plato is that he is so much bigger than his conclusions. Though Socrates is Plato’s hero and mouthpiece, Plato also seems to be aware of Socrates’ (and his own) limitations. Callicles is not a mere strawman, but puts forward a truly consistent worldview; and Plato leaves it in doubt whether his own arguments prevailed. He even puts some good comebacks in Callicles’ mouth: “Yes, by the Gods, you are literally always talking of cobblers and fullers and cooks and doctors, as if this had to do with our argument.” By the Gods, he is!

(Cover photo by Jebulon; licensed under CC0; taken from Wikimedia Commons.)

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Review: Letters on England

Review: Letters on England

Letters on EnglandLetters on England by Voltaire

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Time, which alone gives reputation to writers, at last makes their very faults venerable.

Voltaire and Rousseau are usually grouped together as the twin pillars of the 18th century, the first championing reason and reform, the second romanticism and revolution. After reading them back to back, I know who I prefer. Rousseau is arguably a far more original thinker and writer; yet his personality is so irksome and his arguments so irrational that it can be unpleasant to read him. Voltaire, by contrast, is witty, charming, and delightful; and after Rousseau’s lyrical fantasies, Voltaire’s deflating sarcasm is extremely refreshing.

This book is a collection of essays on topics related to England, written after Voltaire’s three-year stay on the island nation. He interviews a Quaker, visits Parliament, goes to the theater, and then expounds the philosophy of Bacon, Locke, and Newton. He skips lightly from topic to topic, a barb here, a jest there, while revealing an impressive range of knowledge—from inoculation to history, from theater to physics. In general his opinion of England is quite positive, arguably idealized, seeing England as a land of toleration and philosophy. Indeed, the only thing that Voltaire shows some reservation towards is Shakespeare, whose dramas struck Voltaire’s Enlightenment taste as lacking refinement.

The book was controversial when published, since many in France saw Voltaire’s praise of England—correctly—as veiled criticism of their own country. Nowadays, this political purpose only adds to the essays’ charms, as we see Voltaire as a champion of an open society, from religion to science to literature, in addition to an omnivorous intellectual. Few books pack so much into so little space.

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Review: Rameau’s Nephew & D’Alembert’s Dream

Review: Rameau’s Nephew & D’Alembert’s Dream

Rameau's Nephew / d'Alembert's DreamRameau’s Nephew / d’Alembert’s Dream by Denis Diderot

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The best order of things, to my way of thinking, is the one I was meant to be part of, and to hell with the most perfect of worlds if I am not of it.

With this book, I come to the third member of the triumvirate of the French enlightenment. While Diderot’s writing may lack the sharp wit of Voltaire and the soaring lyricism of Rousseau, Diderot is nevertheless just as interesting and perhaps more lovable than his two more famous contemporaries. For Diderot maintained a childlike curiosity and an excitement for ideas that makes his writing straightforwardly pleasant, without any of Voltaire’s satiric malice or Rousseau’s paranoid egotism. It is interesting to note that, though Diderot was a widely respected writer during his lifetime, his most daring and original works, such as these two dialogues, remained unpublished until well after his death. It takes talent to be both a conventional and an unconventional genius.

Rameau’s Nephew, in addition to its philosophical content, is remarkable simply as literature. It consists of a dialogue between a philosopher (who most assume to be Diderot) and the nephew of the famous composer, Jean-Philippe Rameau, who is an eccentric, ne’er-do-well, moocher, bohemian sort of fellow, whose ostensible profession is to give music lessons, but who really makes his living by playing the fool and flattering rich patrons. The conversation takes many twists and turns, which gives Diderot the opportunity to include some barbs against his rivals and enemies. Indeed, it is difficult to say that any topic is the main focus of the conversation, since—as in reality—the speakers break off on tangents, bring up and drop points, interrupt each other and themselves, and so on. This veracity of Diderot’s representation, and the excellent portrait of a hedonist living on the edge of respectable society, give the dialogue a literary value independent of any intellectual considerations. On a philosophical level, what mainly interested me was the confrontation of a virtuous philosopher with a selfish nihilist.

D’Alembert’s Dream is a more strictly philosophical exercise, detailing Diderot’s materialistic theory of biology. His main contention is that all matter is sensitive, or at least potentially sensitive, and thus no mind or soul is needed to explain life, movement, memory, sensation, or thought. Though this hypothesis mainly consists of armchair theorizing, which may sound very facile in the light of serious research, Diderot does put forward a hazy idea of evolution in this dialogue. What is more, in his notion of characteristics disappearing for several generations, and then reappearing, he also hazily hits upon Mendel. Not content to simply write an essay, Diderot puts all this in the mouth of his fellow encyclopedist D’Alembert (who spends most of the dialogue talking in his sleep), Mlle de Lespinasse (a close friend of D’Alembert who hosted a famous salon), and a doctor that serves as Diderot’s mouthpiece. D’Alembert and Mlle de Lespinasse were understandably upset when they heard about this (especially considering that the dialogue ends with a ringing endorsement of masturbation), and even compelled Diderot to burn the manuscript, but another one (in the possession of Grimm) survived.

As I put the book down, I find myself wishing I could spend more time in the company of Diderot, whose writing is warm and direct, witty but not showy, intellectual but not pretentious, daring but not wilfully provocative. It is amazing that one man could find the time to write literary classics while keeping his day job as the editor of the Encyclopédie and a popular playwright.

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Review: Emile

Review: Emile

EmileEmile by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If all the philosophers in the world should prove that I am wrong, and you feel that I am right, that is all I ask.

My reaction to Rousseau is very similar to my reaction to Thoreau, whose back-to-nature ethic owed much to Rousseau’s philosophy. Though constantly impressed with the breadth of their vision and the force of their rhetoric, I find the personalities of these two men—at least as manifested in their books—to be grating and unpleasant. When I am not underlining brilliant passages, I read Rousseau through gritted teeth and with frequent interruptions to roll my eyes.

I see much in common between these two Romantic devotees of nature. While Thoreau’s dour and stern demeanor is not comparable to Rousseau’s sentimental imagination, the two of them are self-involved, prickly, and vain. Both praise wild isolation at the expense of society because neither seemed to fit into the latter. Though the two of them were brilliant in the extreme, neither of them seemed to have reached the level of intellectual maturity that allows feelings to be submitted to reasons and other perspectives to be considered. Both of them fire off opinions with wild abandon, saying what feels good, without taking the trouble to thoroughly argue their points, to consider competing ideas, or even to make their own thoughts consistent.

To pick just one example of this last tendency in Rousseau, at one point he says: “Amid the uncertainty of human life, let us shun that false prudence which seeks to sacrifice the present to the future; what is, is too often sacrificed to what will never be. Let us make man happy at every age lest in spite of our care he should die without knowing the meaning of happiness.” And yet, almost immediately after this pronouncement, he insists that his titular pupil, after having fallen in love and proposed marriage, postpone the delight of union for two years—leaving his beloved to go travel—in order to learn to master his feelings. The book is rife with such inconsistency. And not only that but, as in Thoreau’s case, Rousseau’s manner of life was notoriously inconsistent with the principles he espoused, adding hypocrisy into the bargain. That a man who sent his own children to an orphanage should write a manifesto of education is rich indeed.

But Rousseau must be read and praised, this book above all, since he—as well as his American disciple—contributed a great deal to our common stock of ideas and the expansion of our cultural faculties. Under the guise of a treatise on education, Rousseau has written a universal reflection on human life, comparable to Plato’s Republic or The Brothers Karamazov for its omnidirectional scope. The novelistic device of describing himself as a tutor educating a child allows Rousseau to illustrate his philosophy of society, ethics, government, love, history, travel, religion, literature, and much else along the way, besides to his groundbreaking views on education.

Rousseau begins with his famous dictum that nature makes everything good, and it is human society corrupts our natural goodness into evil. His stated purpose is to illustrate how natural goodness can be preserved in a growing boy destined for life in society—that is, without Thoreau’s recourse of reverting to a state of nature. With this principle in mind, Rousseau blasts mothers for hiring wet nurses to breastfeed their children rather than doing it themselves. And though Rousseau’s reasons are fallacious, this advice probably did the world much good, since, in addition to the emotional bonding, breastfeeding allows important antibodies to be transferred from the mother to the infant.

After infancy gives way to childhood, Rousseau’s real educational work begins. Here he made another important contribution to child-rearing, by insisting that children’s minds are not suited to adult ideas and methods. A child is a different creature altogether and education must be suited to a child’s capacities and predilections. Lectures, sermons, and catechisms must be avoided; and using punishment and reward only corrupt the child. Instead the tutor must find ways to motivate the child to learn without ever seeming to do so. Rousseau the tutor is constantly devising tricks and schemes to get his imaginary pupil, Emile, to learn valuable lessons in a “natural” way—that is, relying on the child’s intrinsic motivation and using no explicit instruction. Everything in Rousseau’s model must simulate life and the child must work on his own conclusions following his own curiosity. The tutor is much more a guide—and, behind the scenes, an impresario—than a real teacher.

Following this procedure, lessons on magnetism and morality are woven into a magician’s act. Geography is taught by getting lost in the forest. Geometry is taught by attempting to draw and map. Botany and agriculture are taught through gardening. And so on, covering sciences, arts, and moral lessons. This way, Emile grows up into a competent, strong, and thoroughly honest boy with no social pretensions and no vanity whatsoever. At least, Rousseau assures us that this would be the result. By the time Rousseau takes Emile into Paris, as a young man, the student is disgusted at the foppery of the men, the arrogance of the philosophes, and the affected manners of the women.

More contentiously, Rousseau would not teach his pupil anything about God or religion until the age of eighteen, considering such subjects too abstruse and profound for a child to understand. He would not even teach Emile to read until shortly before that. And this is not all that occasioned scandal. Rousseau famously interrupts the story of Emile’s education to include the Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar, the most well-known, influential, and controversial section of the book. Though couched in the language of philosophy, the Profession is essentially an argument against both organized religion and atheism in favor of deism, based on feeling alone. Voltaire, a deist himself, considered this the book’s only worthwhile section, only lamenting that it has been written by “such a rascal.” It was largely this trenchant criticism of organized religion that led to the book getting banned and burned in Paris and Geneva. And yet, ironically enough, the idea that inner conviction is a surer basis for faith than logic was to become a pillar of religious thought in the coming centuries.

The last section of the book consists in finding a mate for Emile. This is by far the most unpleasant part of the book. Rousseau’s view on women and their upbringing is reactionary and sexist to the utmost, not to mention unpleasantly marred by Rousseau’s own sentimental (and sexual) fantasies regarding women. Rousseau’s ideal companion for his pupil is named Sophie, and her education differs markedly from Emile’s. Sophie is to be a kind of passive doll, a creature not fit for reason or art, whose job is to caress Emile and to make his life easier. Rousseau describes their courtship with the drama of a novelist and the passion of an onanist. Both the principles and the writing are revolting.

Finally, after enduring a forced separation for his beloved—a very unnatural thing for Rousseau to recommend!—Emile settles down happily in blissful union with Sophie, and prepared to educate his own children along Rousseau’s lines.

This summary does not exactly do justice to Emile, since it omits all of the manifold digressions that Rousseau yields to in the book’s wandering course. Some of these are among the best sections of the work; others are pointless rambling. Even when he is not off in the bushes, Rousseau can be very repetitive, giving us five sentences where one would do, spending three paragraphs harping on a minor point. The final result is a book much longer than it has to be. This is Rousseau’s most conspicuous stylistic flaw, which he excuses in typical Rousseau fashion: “If this book is to be well written, I must enjoy writing it.” Unfortunately the author’s pleasure is often gotten at the expense of the reader’s. Yet the book’s best moments are masterful, rising to heights of power and lyricism that cannot be forgotten. Immanuel Kant famously had to read the book twice, the first time just for the style, the second for the content.

The flaws in Rousseau’s ideas are many and grave. Most obviously, Rousseau’s educational program is impractical in the extreme, relying on a perfectly wise tutor to devote twenty years of his life to a perfectly malleable pupil. This may be excused, however, by treating the arrangement as an explanatory device and not a real proposal to be emulated. More seriously, Rousseau’s conviction that nature is intrinsically good is, I think, incorrect and even incoherent. Natural disasters, such as the Lisbon Earthquake in Rousseau’s own lifetime, demonstrate that nature can be cruel and merciless; and in any case, how can you know what nature is, or where nature ends and human culture begins? Besides, doesn’t Rousseau advocate many “unnatural” things? The level of control exercised by his tutor over his pupil’s reality is far greater than any real parent or teacher.

Yet even when strictly viewed as an educational treatise, there is much to be praised in the book. Rousseau’s emphasis on experiential rather than theoretical learning was quite valuable. And his conviction that education must take into account the child’s development and maturity was a revolution. I also share his suspicion towards using external rewards and punishments to motivate children, since the bad is avoided and the good is sought for artificial, rather than instrinctic, reasons.

Of course the book’s merits extend much further than education. Taken together, Rousseau’s philosophy touched on every aspect of society, from philosophy to fashion, from labor to love. For all his naïveté, Rousseau seemed to have correctly sensed that his society was artificial and could not last. Thirty years before the revolution, he says: “The crisis is approaching, and we are on the edge of a revolution.” And he then goes on in a footnote: “In my opinion, it is impossible that the great kingdoms of Europe should last much longer. Each of them has had its period of splendor, after which it must inevitably decline.” Like Thoreau, Rousseau was a prophet and a true original, embittered by being misunderstood, isolated, and ostracized, whose all-too-obvious faults concealed the revolutionary reach of his vision.

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