Tag Archives: 2013

The Tradition of Western Philosophy

Note added October 16, 2018: Here I compare two projects of re-examining the philosophical tradition of the title. The projects are those of

  • R. G. Collingwood in An Essay on Philosophical Method (Oxford, 1933);
  • Stringfellow Barr and Scott Buchanan at St John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, beginning in 1937.

I review

  • how I ended up as a student at St John’s;
  • how Collingwood has been read (or not read) by myself and others, notably Simon Blackburn;
  • how Collingwood’s Essay is based on the hypothesis of the “overlap of classes.”

I say that Collingwood writes well. This is corroborated, in a sense, in the Introduction to the 2005 edition of the Essay by James Connelly and Giuseppina D’Oro. These editors say of Collingwood’s critics M. C. D’Arcy and C. J. Ducasse,

both agreed that Collingwood’s language was imprecise, sometimes vague, and insufficiently analytical. This criticism was later echoed by A. J. Ayer in his Philosophy in the Twentieth Century where he remarked that ‘An Essay on Philosophical Method is a contribution to belles-lettres rather than philosophy. The style is uniformly elegant, the matter mostly obscure.’

At the end I quote three elegant paragraphs from Collingwood, which begin:

Assumption for assumption, which are we to prefer? That in sixty generations of continuous thought philosophers have been exerting themselves wholly in vain, and have waited for the first word of good sense until we came on the scene? Or that this labour has been on the whole profitable, and its history the history of an effort neither contemptible nor unrewarded?

We prefer the second assumption; and in this we may seem to follow Daniel McCarthy in “Modernism & Conservatism” (The American Conservative, September 25, 2012), an essay recently promoted on Twitter (which is why I return now to this post). The freedom embraced by modernism may drive one to conservatism, as it did T. S. Eliot. McCarthy quotes Donald Livingston:

The true philosopher recognizes that philosophical reflection consistently purged of the authority of the pre-reflective leads to total skepticism. In this moment of despair, hubristic reason … becomes impotent and utterly silent. It is only then that the philosopher can recognize, for the first time, the authority of that radiant world of pre-reflective common life in which he has his being and which had always been a guide prior to the philosophic act.

McCarthy comments on this,

Once reason has disestablished everything, including its own authority, what remains? The ground beneath your feet, the social order of which you are a part—things predicated not on any theory but on their immediacy. This is the profound conservatism to be realized from modernism.

Perhaps one may find this conservatism in some students and faculty at St John’s College; it is not inevitable, and Collingwood hasn’t got it, for all his admiration for Eliot.


A recent theme of this blog has been juxtapositions, especially of paintings, as in the articles “Pairing of paintings” and “More pairings” (both from July, 2013).

In this article I juxtapose two texts, from the 1930s. Both of them decry current intellectual troubles. Both find a solution in a return to the intellectual tradition. Continue reading

Psychology

Preface (January 17–18, 2019). This essay is built around two extended quotations from Collingwood.

  1. One is from the posthumous Idea of History (1946) with the core idea, “people do not know what they are doing until they have done it.”
  2. The other is from An Essay on Philosophical Method (1933), about how logic is neither a purely descriptive nor a purely normative science.

The quotations pertain to the title subject of psychology for the following reasons.

  1. Psychological experiments show that we may not know what we are doing until we have done it.
  2. Psychology is a descriptive science.

Psychological experiments can tell us about what we do, only when we presuppose the general applicability of their findings. This is true for any descriptive science. Philosophy demands more. A philosophical science like logic is categorical, in the sense of the second listed quotation, because it is what Collingwood will later call criteriological. I go on to discuss criteriological sciences as such in “A New Kind of Science,” but not here.

Here I suggest examples of not knowing where one’s life is going. A simpler example would be making art. By the account of The Principles of Art (1938), this is something we do all the time, as for example when we utter a new sentence. We do not know what the sentence is going to be, until it is said. On the other hand, we do somehow guide its utterance. See the quotation about painting at the end of “Freedom.

Collingwood discusses categorical thinking for the sake of explaining the Ontological Proof, which I go on to analyze myself in later articles. Meanwhile, the present essay ends with a look at Graham Priest’s dismissive treatment of the Proof.


The original purpose of this article is to record a passage in The Idea of History of R.G. Collingwood (1889–1943). I bought and read this book in 2001. I was looking back at it recently, because I was reading Herodotus, and I wanted to see again what Collingwood had to say about him and other ancient historians.

The passage that I want to talk about reminded me of some psychological experiments whose conclusions can be overblown. Writing before those experiments, Collingwood shows that the similar conclusions can be drawn, in more useful form, without the pretence of a scientific experiment.

Continue reading

More pairings

Following up on my last article, here I continue to bring together images from different times and places, albeit with no particular conclusion to draw. Continue reading

Pairing of paintings

According to the founder of the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington,

For those who have the power to see beauty…all works of art go together, whatever their period.

Here I put together two paintings, one from ancient Pompeii, and the other a nineteenth-century American work from Mr Freer’s collection.

In the archeological museum in Naples a few weeks ago, I was able to see the original sources of a number of famous images.  One was this Pompeiian fresco, said to represent Flora:

Image

In fact I did not see the original image in Naples.  In its place was a photograph, the original having been sent to London for an exhibit at the British Museum. The photograph above is from somewhere on the web. So is the next photograph below, of “After Sunset” (1892) by Thomas Dewing (Freer Gallery of Art, Washington):
dewing-after-sunset

Here is a close-up, taken by me:

dewing-sunset-detail


Freer collected American works like this, but mostly Asian works of past centuries. Apparently he found some community of spirit among the various elements of his collection. In particular, he compared Dewing’s work with that of Utamaro, as in the following prints, currently displayed at the Freer together with Dewing’s “After Sunset” and the similar “Before Sunrise”:

utamaro

I have seen no evidence that Dewing knew of the Pompeiian Flora.

Books hung out with

The following are some books that I have read more times than I can remember. I list them in order of publication, though my first readings of them came in the opposite order:

  1. R. G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art (1938);
  2. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge (1944);
  3. Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974).

I want to say some things about all of these books, and their writers. I intend especially to address the last book, which I shall call ZAMM. Continue reading

May Day One Month Late

I am not able, and do not attempt, to tell the full story of recent events in Istanbul. My impression is that mainstream foreign media (in English) do a reasonable job at this. It might be emphasized that the first protesters were yoga practitioners and tree huggers. It was police brutalization of them that drew out more violent protesters—as well as people who had never demonstrated in their lives. If the government had allowed May Day demonstrations this year, as last year, then radicals might have blown off some steam then, and the rest might not have happened. But this is just speculation, not meant to belittle the serious grievances that people have with the government. What follows is just a personal account of a walking tour in the vicinity of Taksim Square, June 1, 2013. I made a Google map of the route. The most interesting experience was seeing plain-clothes police officers retreating from Taksim. The second-most interesting was encountering a wedding of friends of the ruling party, taking place in the gardens of an Ottoman pleasure palace, while police battled protesters about 600 meters away.

We were awakened in the night by a strange persistant sound. Was it the creaking of our building in the Next Big Earthquake? No, it was our neighbors beating on pots and pans.
Continue reading

Police against all

I returned again this afternoon (Friday, May 31, 2013) to Gezi Park, or rather to its vicinity. Since yesterday the police had fenced it off.

Northern end of Gezi Park

Northern end of Gezi Park

The police fences can be seen on the left above. I think the woman here was just trying to make her way to Taksim. Presently I noticed that my eyes were stinging. It was the same with other people nearby, even in front of the ritzy Hotel Intercontinental adjacent to the park. Some young men I consulted with there confirmed that the police were using tear gas.
Continue reading

Occupy Istanbul Taksim Gezi Parkı

When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money.

They took all the trees and put ’em in a tree museum
And they charged all the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot

Taksim Square is the cultural heart of Istanbul.  Most of it is paved, but nearby is Gezi Parkı, shaded by many trees.  It is somewhat out of the way and hidden from view: from the Taksim side, one must climb steps to reach it, and between it and the main road north, Cumhuriyet Caddesi, there are restaurants and a Turkish Airlines office.  As a tourist in Istanbul, I was only vaguely aware of the park.  Now, as a resident, whenever I walk from home to Taksim, I pass through the park.

The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan intends to replace the park with buildings of some kind.  His words are translated by Hürriyet Daily News:

If you have respect for history, first you need to learn the history of Gezi Park.

He is supposedly referring to the Topçu Kışlası or Artillery Barracks that used to stand on the land of the park.

It is a bad joke. Continue reading

Learning mathematics

This is mostly reminiscences about high school. I also give some opinions about how mathematics ought to be learned. This article originally formed one piece with my last article, “Limits.”

I learned calculus, and the epsilon-delta definition of limit, in Washington D.C., in the last two years of high school, in a course taught by a peculiar fellow named Donald J. Brown. The first of these two years was officially called Precalculus Honors, but some time in that year, we started in on calculus proper. Continue reading

Limits

This is about limits in mathematics: both the technical notion that arises in calculus, and the barriers to comprehension that one might reach in one’s own studies. I am going to say a few technical things about the technical notion, but there is no reason why this should be a barrier to your reading: you can just skip the paragraphs that have special symbols in them.

Looking up something else in the online magazine called Slate, I noted a reprint of an article called “What It Feels Like to Be Bad at Math” from a blog called Math With Bad Drawings by Ben Orlin. Now teaching high-school mathematics, Mr Orlin recalls his difficulties in an undergraduate topology course. His memories help him understand the difficulties of his own students. When students do not study, why is this? It is because studying makes them conscious of how much they do not understand. They feel stupid, and they do not like this feeling. Continue reading