If only tangentially sometimes, this is about living in Turkey, especially under the ongoing official state of emergency.

Aristotle, Marx & Engels, and Collingwood

Aristotle, Marx & Engels, and Collingwood

A blog article on Medium recently struck me for its treatment of science. Dated October 3, the article is called “The Purpose Of Life Is Not Happiness: It’s Usefulness,” and its opening section is as follows.

For the longest time, I believed that there’s only purpose of life: And that is to be happy.

Right? Why else go through all the pain and hardship? It’s to achieve happiness in some way.

And I’m not the only person who believed that. In fact, if you look around you, most people are pursuing happiness in their lives.

That’s why we collectively buy shit we don’t need, go to bed with people we don’t love, and try to work hard to get approval of people we don’t like.

Why do we do these things? To be honest, I don’t care what the exact reason is. I’m not a scientist. All I know is that it has something to do with history, culture, media, economy, psychology, politics, the information era, and you name it. The list is endless.

I was dismayed that the author, Darius Foroux, would think that there was an “exact reason” for why we did things, and that a scientist could find out the reason. Reasons are relative to us. If we ask why we did something that turned out to be unpleasant, we ask for the sake of not doing it again, or doing it better. At least this is how I read Collingwood in An Essay on Metaphysics (page 304), and I agree:

a principle follows which I shall call ‘the relativity of causes’. Suppose that the conditions of an event y include three things, α, β, γ; and suppose that there are three persons A, B, C, of whom A is able to produce or prevent α and only α; B is able to produce or prevent β and only β; and C is able to produce or prevent γ and only γ. Then if each of them asks ‘What was the cause of y?’ each will have to give a different answer. For A, α is the cause; for B, β; and for C, γ. The principle may be stated by saying that for any given person the cause in sense II of a given thing is that one of its conditions which he is able to produce or prevent.

In Collingwood’s example, if a car overturns at a bend in the road, the cause for the driver is cornering too fast, because the driver can drive more slowly. For the road engineer, the cause is a poor road surface, or poor camber, because these things are under the engineer’s control. The car’s designer can change its center of gravity, and so this may be the cause of the accident, to the designer. [Collingwood’s own words are quoted in “War and Talk.”] Of course one can quibble and say that the driver can also demand the appropriate changes from the road engineer or the car manufacturer. But the general principle is sound: we cannot blame our problems on so-called “causes” that are out of our control.

Collingwood identifies (on his pages 285–6) three historical senses of the word “cause,” and these can be corroborated (roughly) by the Oxford English Dictionary. Originally a cause is a motive for the action of a free agent; then it is an event that we can bring about in order to produce another event. Finally, in “sense III,” a cause is something that cannot be described in full detail, because ultimately it does not make sense. It is the kind of thing that theoretical scientists are thought to look for. It is the “exact reason” for something, mentioned by Darius Foroux. Foroux does well not to be interested in knowing this “exact reason.” Still, he seems to grant that there are certain professionals who can find it. If he does, I am dismayed.

Collingwood gives a good example (page 300):

A great deal of time and money is being spent on ‘cancer research’, that is, on the attempt to discover ‘the cause of cancer’. I submit that the word ‘cause’ is here used in sense II; that is to say, discovering the cause of cancer means discovering something which it is in the power of human beings to produce or prevent, by producing or preventing which they can produce or prevent cancer. Suppose some one claimed to have discovered the cause of cancer, but added that his discovery would be of no practical use because the cause he had discovered was not a thing that could be produced or prevented at will. Such a person would be ridiculed by his colleagues in the medical profession. His ‘discovery’ would be denounced as a sham.

Collingwood’s Essay was published in 1940. I don’t know the extent to which sham science is ridiculed by scientists today. A recent article on Raw Story is called “A neuroscientist explains what may be wrong with Trump supporters’ brains,” and here, in four numbered sections, Bobby Azarian mentions the so-called “Dunning-Kruger Effect,” “Hypersensitivity to Threat,” “Terror Management Theory,” and “High Attentional Engagement.” I don’t know what good the terminology can do for us, if Azarian’s conclusion is as follows:

So what can we do to potentially change the minds of Trump loyalists before voting day in November? As a cognitive neuroscientist, it grieves me to say that there may be nothing we can do. The overwhelming majority of these people may be beyond reach, at least in the short term. The best we can do is to motivate everyone else to get out to the booths and check the box that doesn’t belong to a narcissistic nationalist who has the potential to damage the nation beyond repair.

This sounds like Collingwood’s hypothetical fraudulent cancer-researcher.

I set out writing here because of recent threats to my own happiness. The country where I have worked and lived for sixteen years is travelling down the same road taken by a presidential candidate in my country of origin. That candidate has many supporters who want to follow him, as does the actual president where I live. It may well be that outsiders do not understand the real threat represented in Turkey by the July 15 coup attempt (which I wrote about next day in “War Continues”). But one reason for the lack of understanding would be the secrecy of the Turkish president, who seems to have given no detail about his relations with his erstwhile comrade, Fethullah Gülen. The president’s people are currently busy suppressing independent media, be they Kurdish or Kemalist. Blamed for the coup attempt, followers of Gülen are now being attacked wherever they can be found. If they are civil servants, including university professors, they are being fired; if they own businesses, the businesses are being confiscated. Some persons are being jailed, and Human Rights Watch reports torture.

Torture has no justification; there is nothing more to say about that. As for the dismissals of persons who are at least my nominal colleagues, these dismissals would seem to attribute to us in academia a power over our students, if not over the general public, that we do not actually possess. I normally think academics are well respected in Turkey; but the dark side of such respect is fear. The Turkish president has great power over his followers; but he does not seem to have had the power to complete a university degree.

As I suggested towards the end of my “Pyrgos Island” article, Gülenist academics may well have a perverted view of their jobs. They may have been given their jobs, not for their quality as teachers or researchers, but for their status as Gülenists. Still, I don’t see why the state of emergency should justify being fired without due process. It would also seem that not everybody being fired is a Gülenist; he or she could be just a peace activist or other dissident. University rectors have had to draw up lists of suspects, and names could end up on such lists for various reasons.

I feel free to say what I think, on Twitter for example, or on this blog. Possibly something I say or do may cause somebody to denounce me. I doubt it, and I think there would be no reason; but I recognize the possibility. Apparently foreigners can now be deported without a court order, and Christians are being targeted. Perhaps these Christians are more specifically perceived as missionaries. In a Muslim country, I can accept for myself the Christian label. I can perhaps appreciate Christianity for having popularized the lesson of Socrates in the Phaedo, that death can be faced with equanimity. However, I can probably also agree with my teacher David Bolotin, who argues that, despite his words, Socrates does not actually believe in personal immortality. In any case, I have grown up admiring self-sacrifice, a notable example being that of Jesus of Nazareth. I respect Christianity for rejecting (or insofar as it rejects) obedience to external codes as a basis for salvation. Unfortunately people of any religion may try to impose codes of behavior; this I decry, while recognizing that people in despair over a life out of control may feel the need to obey some clear rule.

I am a kind of missionary, but what I preach is learning, especially learning in context: learning mathematics, not merely as it has been distilled into a textbook, but as it has been created, be it in the work of Euclid, or Pappus, or Descartes. To appreciate what Descartes has done for, and to, mathematics today, we have to read his predecessors, as he himself did. In their first semester in our department in Istanbul, our undergraduate students learn the propositions of Book I of Euclid’s Elements. They do this by having to go to the board and prove the propositions to one another and to their teacher. Students may think their job is just to tell us what Euclid thinks. I hope they will learn to tell us what they think, because they have understood Euclid and they have adapted his line of reasoning to their own way of thinking. Euclid is not a source for revealed truth. I don’t know that there can be such a thing as revealed truth. I want Euclid to be a key for unlocking the students’ own understanding.

That is the sort of thing that I see myself as doing. It could be brought to an end by somebody who thought my contract should not be renewed, or who thought I should be deported. It could be brought to an end in another way, as by the earthquake that is expected to devastate the city of Istanbul. Because of the threat of irregular warfare (“terrorism”), families of staff at the American consulate here were recently ordered to leave Turkey. It is not clear to me why just leaving Istanbul was not enough, since the same order was not given for other consulates in the country.

Many things can happen. I have not mentioned the possibility that my wife could be jailed the way our colleague was, and could be again, as I described in “Academic Freedom” on March 25, and in a September addendum to that article. Prison seems unlikely, but we acknowledge the possibility, however distant it may be. [In 2018, in July, she was indicted; in 2019, on January 10, she delivered her defense, and on September 12, she made her final statement, after which she was acquitted.]

In the course of 2014, I wrote several articles here about chapters of Collingwood’s New Leviathan. I started in January with “Body and Mind,” on Chapter I. By August I was as far as Chapter IX, with “Facts.” Perhaps then I was overcome with doubts of the value of my stream-of-consciousness reporting. However, the present article can be seen as a continuation of this reporting. I have jumped ahead to Chapter XII, “Happiness.” I am not going to go through it in all possible detail. The key idea is that unhappiness is only “parasitic” on happiness (12. 84); despair is parasitic on hope (12. 94).

Collingwood starts with Aristotle. In the article that I started out quoting, Foroux mentions Aristotle, but he does this through a vaguely uplifting passage that, like so many on the Internet, seems not to be a direct quotation:

Did Aristotle lie to us when he said:

Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.

I think we have to look at that quote from a different angle. Because when you read it, you think that happiness is the main goal. And that’s kind of what the quote says as well.

But here’s the thing: How do you achieve happiness?

Happiness can’t be a goal in itself. Therefore, it’s not something that’s achievable.

I believe that happiness is merely a byproduct of usefulness.

On Yahoo Answers, 8 years ago, somebody styling himself or herself as Doctor Why traced the putative Aristotle quotation to Book I, Chapter 7, of the Nichomachean Ethics. In the translation of Roger Crisp (Cambridge University Press, 2000), the relevant passage reads:

For now, we take what is self-sufficient to be that which on its own makes life worthy of choice and lacking in nothing. We think happiness to be such, and indeed the thing most of all worth choosing, not counted as just one thing among others … Happiness, then, is obviously something complete and self-sufficient, in that it is the end of what is done.

As if warning against the spreading of isolated quotations, Aristotle continues in what the translator treats as a new paragraph:

But perhaps saying that happiness is the chief good sounds rather platitudinous, and one might want its nature to be specified still more clearly. It is possible that we might achieve that if we grasp the characteristic activity of a human being. For just as the good—the doing well—of a flute-player, a sculptor or any practitioner of a skill, or generally whatever has some characteristic activity or action, is thought to lie in its characteristic activity, so the same would seem to be true of a human being, if indeed he has a characteristic activity.

Foroux finds his characteristic activity in being useful, and he explains this through another dubious quotation:

The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.

Foroux attributes this to Emerson; but if Quote Investigator is to be believed, the source is likely to be a very similar passage in an address by Leo Rosten published in 1962 in the Sunday Star in Washington. (The Star newspaper went out of business during the Reagan administration, when I was in high school.)

By Collingwood’s account (12. 2–22), in Aristotle’s view, happiness is the achievement for oneself of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s aim for Turkey: Yurtta Sulh, Cihanda Sulh, or in the current style, Yurtta Barış, Dünyada Barış: “Peace at Home, Peace in the World.” Happiness is well-being with respect both to oneself and what is not oneself.

12. 3. In relation to the not-self the bad self is the self at the mercy of the not-self; liable to be helplessly acted upon by the not-self.

12. 31. To be a self of such a kind as to be frightened or annoyed by the action of other things upon it is to have the vice of cowardice or irascibility; the opposite is to have the virtue of courage or temperance.

I don’t know about cowardice, but I suspect Collingwood suffers from irascibility. In any case, in New Leviathan, published in 1942, Collingwood is writing against the Nazis, who threaten to destroy European civilization. Collingwood dismisses Mill’s utilitarian account of happiness as pleasure; but then he also dismisses Nietzsche’s dismissal, in terms that may be appropriate for a country at war:

12. 4. Nietzsche, Germanically confusing a question of moral science with one of national hatred, expressed his opinion of utilitarianism by saying that no man wants to be happy; only Englishman want to be happy; what a man wants is not happiness but power.

12. 41. At Trafalgar and Waterloo Englishmen replied to the taunt ‘nation of shopkeepers’ by destroying the worshipper of force who had flung it in their teeth.

12. 42. They may yet live down the more pitiful taunt of what his schoolfellows called ‘The Little Parson’.

There is no such thing as what Hegel calls the “Unhappy Consciousness”: “Unhappiness is not a form of consciousness, it is an abstraction from the consciousness of desire” (12. 6). Unhappiness is badness, in the sense of being subject to one’s passions; it is weakness, in being subject to circumstances. The point of calling unhappiness an abstraction is that it does not exist undiluted:

12. 63. In the face of this tyranny of circumstances it is no use being frightened; it is no use being angry; the only thing left is to be miserable.

12. 64. That is no actual use, either; but then it is a response to a situation that never actually arises. An occasion for unhappiness is never an occasion for being merely unhappy; it is always an occasion for a mixed emotion of happiness and unhappiness.

12. 65. The more we feel it as an occasion of sheer unhappiness, the more we can be certain that there are in it occasions of happiness which we have overlooked: that in fact we are happier than we know.

My copy of New Leviathan has some passages underlined (by me, some years ago); for the last paragraph above, there is a question mark in the margin. You can always be suspicious of somebody who tells you that things are not as bad as they seem. But Collingwood has a point. If circumstances make us despair, it is because we know that they can be different. “If we believed Marx’s monstrous lie that all States have always been organs for the oppression of one class by another, there would be nothing to make all this fuss about” (12. 93). I don’t like calling anybody a liar, and it was tactful of Hillary Clinton not to call Donald Trump a liar in the second debate (the only one I watched), even though Trump spent most of his time calling Clinton a liar. Even if the assertion attributed to Marx were correct, this would seem not to prevent the conception of a better possibility for the State. So what is Collingwood saying? It is a theme of his, seen for example in The Principles of Art, that you cannot put something to bad use unless you first know how to make a good use of it. You cannot use political speech to corrupt, before you have learned that speech can effect real understanding. You cannot lie, before you know what the truth is.


The prime power staircase

The prime power staircase

On that last point about telling lies, it may well be that somebody can tell untruths without lying. In any case, after uploading my article from home this morning, I came to my department, and a student sitting in the common area pointed out that some posters, including my own, had been torn from our walls.

Matematik Bölümü, MSGSÜ, 2016.11.03

Matematik Bölümü, MSGSÜ, 2016.11.03

My poster illustrated the Riemann Hypothesis: that if ψ(x) is defined as log(lcm(1, … [x]), then the graph of ψ is close to that of y = x. I used the poster to end my June article, “One & Many,” concerning Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Matematik Bölümü, MSGSÜ, 2016.11.03

Matematik Bölümü, MSGSÜ, 2016.11.03

The suspicion was that the poster-ripper had been a plain-clothes police officer. Ayşe and I had seen such officers around the the headquarters of Cumhuriyet newspaper, whose editors are in prison. After I went to my office today, the same student who had told me about the posters watched an unknown man come into our department and sit. We thought he was a spy, a detective. The state of emergency had made us jumpy. The stranger turned out to be a new student who had been ill.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By What Now « Polytropy on November 12, 2016 at 8:28 am

    […] « Happiness […]

  2. By Donne’s Undertaking « Polytropy on April 10, 2020 at 4:06 pm

    […] in the text of the dialogue. Except for the analogy with Donne, I have mentioned the foregoing elsewhere as the plausible argument of David Bolotin, my teacher in college, in his article, “The Life […]

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