Monday, 31 July 2017

The Vision Thing


A critique of the notion of perfect objectivity as represented by the 'Universal Language' and other similar notions.

The effect of this vision on the modern mind has for the last fewˋ centuries been progressive and profound. It shows, for instance, in the pervasive attachment of educated opinion in the West to the belief that unless moral principles can be shown to be “objective,” which is to say, somehow or other inherent in a “Nature” untouched by human hands, we have no option but to embrace a noncognitivism according to which morality is a tissue of subjective “feelings” or “commitments,” and as such immune from rational criticism. In another way it shows in the conviction, widespread in literary studies, that there is ultimately no distinction of value to be drawn between great literature and the most trivial piece of kitsch, as literature per se is a fantasy; a further layer of coloured illusion that we interpose between ourselves and the realities of which we would be glumly confined to speaking, did we but speak a language as hostile to fantasy as the Universal Language would be, and as such putative fragments of it as, say, the languages of the physical sciences already are.
(from: Word and World by Patricia Hanna and Bernard Harrison)

Sunday, 30 July 2017

The Princess Casamassima by Henry James


In the oeuvre of Henry James The Princess Casamassima is something of an odd duck or a black swan. Belying the title most of the characters are of the skilled artisan class. There is a seamstress, bookbinders, a chemist, a music hall fiddler with only a Princess and Captain (ret.) to balance the rude mechanicals. In fact calling the serial production The Princess Casamassima is a bow to James’s normal social order for the book is well underway before she gets on board and she is only described objectively whereas Hyacinthe has a subjective voice, an inner life. But really for a title The Little Bookbinder would never do. The novel was produced as a serial for Atlantic Monthly and published in the same year 1886 as The Bostonians bostonians:both received no likes. This may have been the impulse that moved him to remain with tales of the genteel upper classes. I feel that his writing against his own personal knowledge and character in both those novels brought out his wit and invention. He had to use his imagination more. That he might have smashed his Europe Vs America template had they made him some money is a arguable speculation.

Anarchism today is within the bounds of propriety and resembles an endless committee meeting. In the 19th.century it was explosive, incendiary and murderous activity carried out by otherwise pleasant people. I can’t say too much about the plot as that would ruin a virgin reading. It’s uncanny that Lionel Trilling could tell all in an introduction to an edition of the book back in the 1940‘s. That is reproduced as an essay in The Liberal Imagination. Don’t read it, don’t read any of it. You have better things to do. Make a cup of tea.

The key to the character of Hyacinthe Robinson lies in his origin as the love child of a French prostitute and her aristocratic lover whom she slays with a knife when he repudiates his paternity. The child is adopted by Amanda Pynsent, sempstress, and reared by her to have a sense of a noble origin. Attraction to the amenities of the high born and repulsion for the actual state of the social order that it supports draws him into a nest of anarchists the moral centre of which is Paul Muniment, a chemist. Hyacinthe’s friend is Millicent Henning a striking beauty who works in a fashionable haberdashery and ladies clothing emporium. She models the fine clothes there. The Peter Pannish Hyacinthe is asexual but has a strong aesthetic sense and a cultivated almost aristocratic manner. As the story develops the Princess comes into it and a stay with her in a country mansion further increases his antithetical repulsion and attraction for its culture. His artisan class fashions its fittings and ought to have a better life.

This novel has more than the usual variety of character and incident in a James novel, always very readable without the stateliness of diction that Maitre Henry can fall into. On a couple of occasions he commits the solecism which he castigates Trollope for - he talks to the reader. That is due to the serial form probably and perhaps a personal indecision as to whether to introduce documentary evidence for his knowledge of the inward parts of Hyacinthe. Jarring but not important for this excellent novel.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

The Memory Hole


How can we forget anything that we have paid attention to? Is that making an event in consciousness that has occurred dependent on personal omission? In the view of Bergson everything remains 'out there' requiring only retrieval by a focussing of the brain. Using a holographic analogy Dr. Stephen Robbins writes of a reconstructive wave which requires a similar wavelength to the original conscious event. The idea of the brain scanning the contents of the brain itself is rejected. The loss of memory due to brain damage is not due to the destruction of storage there because in time the reconstructive aspect of brain function can pass to another area of the brain. Stroke patients can recover language and memory returns.

In his simpler formulation of the brain's function Bergson likens it to a reducing valve. We screen out the dross and retain only the highlights so even the events we think we are attending to are chopped up. Forgetting is a good thing, the totality of the flow of events would overwhelm us. Living in an extended intuition of duration requires a special environment like a monastery or an ashram or a well appointed cave.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Upadesa Sahasri: Route to Idealism through Mental Modifications (Vritti)


74. To this, the disciple replied, The delusion, Sir, is gone by your grace; but I have doubts about the changeless nature which, you say, pertains to me.
Teacher: What doubts?
Disciple: Sound etc., do not exist independently as they are non-conscious. But they come into existence when there arise in the mind modifications resembling sound and so on. It is impossible that these modifications should have an independent existence as they are exclusive of one another as regards their special characteristics (of resembling sound etc.,) and appear to be blue, yellow, etc. (So sound etc., are not the same as mental modifications). It is therefore inferred that these modifications are caused by external objects. So it is proved that modifications resemble sound etc., objects existing externally. Similarly, these different modifications of the mind also are combinations and therefore non-conscious. So, not existing for their own sake they, like sound etc., exist only when known by one different from them. Though the Self is not a combination, It consists of Consciousness and exists for Its own sake; It is the knower of the mental modifications appearing to be blue, yellow and so on. It must, therefore, be of a changeful nature. Hence is the doubt about the changeless nature of the Self.
(From Upadesa SahasriChap.2:The Knowledge of the Changeless)

Here I suppose is a statement of the obvious which like anything in philosophy which is too clear and straightforward has in it the possibility of error. Sounds etc. occur as the result of an interaction between an aware subject and the world. Sankara reminds us elsewhere that we do not perceive perceptions, we perceive objects. That route to idealism which holds that we are immediately aware of our mental states and by inference from those states to an external object which is their cause, is cut off. Perception is clearly distinguished from inference as a valid means of knowledge. Inference is a movement of the mind itself on the basis of some evidence.

The disciple seems to hold to the idea that there is a inner mental subject with special access to inner mental objects, those mental modifications. This ever changing data must be known by a subject which to keep up with them is changing also. The self in its self knowledge is continuously taking the form of the mental modifications and cannot therefore be changeless. This is his dilemma.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Rumours of Reality


There’s a persistent philosophical rumour that there are different sorts of objects of varying saturation of reality. First among those is the unknown object which might be a Saxon hoard or a shilling under a rock. It’s there, the unknown unknown. That a thing could be an unknown object is a guarantee of its independent reality status. As a corollary there are those mental states that only come to exist in the moment that they are known. An emotion comes into existence as it is known and then after it has abated drops into the memory well. So they are not really objects but they are real as objects of awareness. Other items have a reality contingent on agreements, legal instruments and so on. There are wills, contracts, vows, promises that are eternal or temporary or transient; fragile or adamantine. They exist within the sphere of the commitment of the parties involved and are real enough but they have ‘no face before they were born’ as the Zenists say.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Empty Rocks


When Brian (BBC Science prog) Cox picks up a stone and tells us that it is mostly composed of empty spaces he is speaking in analogical terms as though what we consider as empty in the normal way applies to the molecular level description. It involves a freezing in time of the molecular events which is essentially a falsification for practical purposes to produce a model of the molecule. This is useful but is not to be taken as the reality. It is an analogy with a very narrow focus in order to enhance understanding. Such abstraction is like the reducing of time to instants that gives rise to Zeno's paradox

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Perception in Advaita Vedanta


Now as the water of a tank, issuing through a hole, enters in the form of a channel a number of fields, and just like them assumes a rectangular or any other shape, so also the luminous mind, issuing through the eye etc., goes to the space occupied by objects such as a jar, and is modified into the form of a jar or any other object. That very modification is called a state (vritti). But in the case of inference etc., the mind does not go to the space occupied by fire etc., for the latter are not in contacty with the eye etc. Thus in cases of perception such as, “This jar,” the jar etc. and the mental state in the form of these combine in the same space outside the body, and hence the Consciousness limited by both is one and the same, for the mental state and the objects such as a jar, although (usually) they are dividing factors, do not (here) produce any difference, since they occupy the same space. For this very reason the ether limited by a jar and that which is within a monastery is not different from the ether limited byh the monastery. Similarly, in the case of the perception of a jar as, “This jar,” the mental state in the form of the jar being in contact with the jar, the Consciousness limited by that mental state is not different from the Consciousness limited by the jar, and hence the knowledge of the jar there is a perception so far as the jar is concerned. Again, since the Consciousness limited by happiness etc. and the Consciousness limited by the mental state relating to them are invariably limited by the two limiting adjuncts that occupy the same space, the knowledge, “I am happy,” is invariably a perception.
(from Vedanta Paribhasa on Perception)

Professor Bina Gupta (in The Disinterested Witness pg.103ff.) is dubious about the claim of V.P. that the luminous mind goes out to take the shape of the object. The shape of the object is what is termed the vritti or mental modification in the usual translation. What Gupta offers is a separation of these two assertions (a) the going out (b) the vritti. Retaining the vritti as an internal event is a turn towards psychologism and representationalism. The well known vulnerability to the private language argument proposed by Wittgenstein is a salient feature of these views. The strength of the traditional advaitin view is in the radical externality of the object of perception and the securing of our knowledge of it as it really is. The basis of this perceptuality lies in the common substratum of pure consciousness of both the mind and the object.

Gupta claims that this going out is a primitive physiological theory also held by the Greeks and is suggested by the problem :

How is it that the object is there at a distance, yet I am able to see it from here. What bridges this distance? This is an important issue in the psychology of perception. Thus the Advaitins had a nice, though scientifically incorrect, answer - the mind itself goes out there, the form I perceive is not just in my brain but is also out there in the thing perceived.

Here we are at the confused borderland of Metaphysics and Psychology. In the Advaitin metaphysics subject and object meet in the extra-personal field of Pure Consciousness and the knowledge precipitate is superimposed on the mind of the individual perceiver.




Monday, 10 July 2017

Memory and Identity


I am I. I was I. Do I need evidence for this? Could memory be evidence?? How might that be wrought? Might I look back and having a series of inward images, me climbing a wall, stealing pears, stuffing my shirt. And then my assessment: yes, that’s definitely me, no mistake about it. However as we and the bad cop know, memories can be induced and a person can be brought to believe a story in which they are the chief actor. Even if there was a movie made of my life that was the the same length as my life would that establish self-identity i.e. my identity for myself? It would prove that I was not in Bangkok on the day in question, maybe but should someone splice in a double boating down a canal even I might be bamboozled. Whether in Thailand or not I was still I. If that knowledge resists true evidence in the sense that we do not have to use a memory to establish identity then false evidence does not undermine identity either. It is immune to evidence. The empiricist hunger must rest unassuaged.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Matthew Arnold in Literature and Dogma on Verification


And this is the aim of the following essay: to show that, when we come to put the right construction on the Bible, we give to the Bible a real experimental basis, and keep on this basis throughout j instead of any basis of unverifiable assumption to start with, followed by a string of other unverifiable assumptions of the like kind, such as the received theology necessitates.

Norwich demurs:
Maudlin sentimen talism," says the Dean of Norwich, "with its miserable disparagements of any definite doctrine; a nerveless religion, without the sinew and bone of doctrine."

Fat City by Leonard Gardner


Nobody says and maybe they should, of Leonard Gardner, ‘he coulda been a contender’. Or ‘he retired undefeated’ or ‘there are no second acts in American lives’. There is a comeback kid who defies the cliché by not coming back. It is an awful fate to hit the highest point of your oeuvre on your first book and then fall back into self imitation subsequently. Gardner declined that shame. Fat City is an American classic and it is quite acceptable to have gone some rounds with Ernesto Hemingway and then knocked him on his ass.

It opens:


He lived in the Hotel Coma—named perhaps for some founder of the town, some California explorer or pioneer, or for some long-deceased Italian immigrant who founded only the hotel itself. Whoever it commemorated, the hotel was a poor monument, and Billy Tully had no intention of staying on. His clean laundry he continued to put back in his suitcase on the dresser, ready to be hurried away to better lodgings. He had lived in five hotels in the year and a half since his wife had left him. From his window he looked out on the stunted skyline of Stockton—a city of eighty thousand surrounded by the sloughs, rivers and fertile fields of the San Joaquin River delta—a view of business buildings, church spires, chimneys, water towers, gas tanks and the low roofs of residences rising among leafless trees between absolutely flat streets. Along the sidewalk under his window, men passed between bars and liquor stores, cafes, secondhand stores and walk-up hotels. Pigeons the color of the street pecked in the gutters, flew between buildings, marched along ledges and cooed on Tully's sill. His room was high and narrow.

Smudges from oily heads darkened the wallpaper between the metal rods of his bed. His shade was tattered, his light bulb dim, and his neighbors all seemed to have lung trouble.

It’s not so much noir as grey, the colour of Tully’s underwear. If there’s hope it’s a rumour. He goes to the fields to top onions.


There was a continuous thumping in the buckets. The stooped forms inched in an uneven Hue, hke a wave, across the field, their progress measured by the squat, upright sacks they left behind. In the air was a faint drone of tractors, hardly audible above the hum that had been in Tully's ears since his first army bouts a decade past.

He scrabbled on under the arc of the sun, cutting and tossing, onion tops flying, the knife fastened to his hand by draining blisters. Knees sore, he squatted, stood, crouched, sat, and knelt again and, belching a stinging taste of bile, dragged himself through the morning. By noon he had sweated himself sober. Covered with grime, he waddled into the bus with his sandwiches and an onion.

Going to his old trainer and getting a few easy marks to ease his way back was a plan. He was good until he was let down and robbed off a title in Mexico City by crooks. He resents Ruben Luna but he knows him:

Confidence, Ruben Luna believed, was the indispensable ingredient of success, and he had it in abundance —as much faith in his destiny as in the athletes he trained. In his own years of battling he had had doubts which at times became periods of terror. With a broken jaw wired into silence, he had sucked liquid meals through a tube, wondering if he were even sane. After a severe body beating and a bloody urination in the dressing room, he had wondered if the big fights and large sums he had thought would be coming but never came could be worth what he had already endured. But now Ruben's will was Hke a pure and unwavering light that burned even in his sleep. It was more a fatahstic optimism than determination, and though he was not immune to anxiety over his boxers, he felt he was immune to despair. Limited no longer by his own capacities, he had an odds advantage that he had never had as a competitor. He knew he could last. But his fighters were less dependable. Some trained one day and laid off two, fought once and quit, lost their timing, came back, struggled into condition,gasped and missed and were beaten, or won several bouts and got married, or moved, or were drafted, joined the navy or went to jail, were bleeders, suffered headaches, saw double or broke their hands. There had been so many who found they were not fighters at all, and there were others who without explanation had simply ceased to appear at the gym and were never seen or heard about again by Ruben, though once in a while a forgotten face returned briefly in a dream and he went on addressing instructions to it as though the intervening years had never been.