Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Impressive recent reads #3

The World as Will and Representation by Arthur Schopenhauer

Reading this tome was a mammoth undertaking that took me the best part of a year. Although Schopenhauer is renowned for being overwhelmingly pessimistic, I found his view of the world, to a degree, to be life-affirming.

The basic crux of his argument is as follows.To an extent, Schopenhauer agreed with Kant's distinction between the phenomenon (subjective perception, 'appearance') and the thing-in-itself. The thing-in-itself is external reality and, so Kant said, unknowable. We cannot know the thing-in-itself because we are limited to our own experience and our own subjective perception. Space, time and causality, for both philosophers, are 'a priori.' We have a predetermined understanding of them. We do not need to acquire knowledge to perceive any of these categories. As regards causality, even small children and animals already, for instance, know that they should not jump off a table. Schopenhauer argued that there is a underlying energy that powers all subjects and objects. It powers the whole of nature. It resides within 'the thing-in-itself' and it resides within ourselves. There is a pantheistic bent to this, though Schopenhauer is an atheist and sees nothing divine to it. This is what he called the 'will.' It is often characterised as 'striving,' which is instructive. The will seeks satisfaction, but it is constantly denied. The subject is constantly dissatisfied. The whole of nature is in a constant war of attrition. It 'wills' and it 'strives', but it is unsatisfied.

Schopenhauer divides the work into four parts. In the first, he examines epistemic questions ('The World as Appearance, First Aspect'). He concurs with Kant that time and space are a priori. An innate understanding of space, time and causality endows us with 'sufficient reason' (as in rational mental faculties) to process phenomena with no prior experience. All physical phenomena also needs a 'sufficient reason' for it to occur (i.e. the necessary causal relations and whatever intrinsic substantive qualities). In this section, he examines physical science to explain the perception of reality and to ascertain how we know what we know. Ever the systemiser, he uses logic to explain how the mind perceives certain objects and words and how it retains some objects and words to the detriment of others.

In the second section, he explores ontology ('The World as Will, First Aspect'). Here he explores the way in which 'the will' runs through everything. As it runs through ourselves, this means that both subjectivity and objectivity are interchangeable both in terms of perception and causality. Schopenhauer reveals his characteristic pessimism when he reveals that willing is a unsatisfactory, even painful, process. The whole of nature is willing and regenerating itself, with little purpose other than procreation (and misery!).

In the third section, Schopenhauer explores aesthetics ('The World as Appearance, Second Aspect.') This part is particularly enjoyable. Art, for Schopenhauer, represent 'Platonic Ideas.' By this he means that it expresses universal truths that are outside reality. It is outside space and time and outside a casual nexus. He explores all of the arts and ranks them in order of importance. Music is the 'purest' form of art. By this he means that it is informed by pure mathetmatics and doesn't have a shred of language or reference to the natural world. Essentially, art lets us see appearance in a way that is more subjective and removed from the every-day.

In the final section, he explores ethics ('The World as Will, Second Aspect'). Since we are all willing and eager to satisfy our own dreams, this implies that we are all selfish and amoral and do not care about the need for others. Here Schopnehauer specifies that we need to be compassionate. When we do this, we are 'denying' our will. Finally, Schopenhauer considers asceticism to be the 'highest' form of existence. By taking on poverty and not caving in to bodily desires, the individual 'denies' the will and takes control of his own volition. It is also a higher form of existence than art, since the former is a fleeting pleasure (and only a fleeting 'denier' of the will) and does not lead to an ethical lifestyle.

Schopenhauer is not a big a name as he was in the early 20th century, where he was generally a favourite of artists rather than philosophers. I find this a bit surprising in that a lot of his ideas are proto-Freudian and proto-Darwinian and they shape the discourses we have today. (As a whole, we are not that big on metaphysics or idealism any more, though. Those who are don't tend to be atheists.) His ideas on desire definitely foreshadow Freud. Despite Freud's dissection of sex, he was still overly moralistic and aimed to curb overpowering desire. He built 'psychoanalysis,' instead of celebrating asceticism. His ideas definitely foreshadow Darwin. The idea of the whole of nature 'willing' and striving for procreation has obvious parallels with natural selection. Admittedly, these ideas were gaining traction in Germany at the time. This is why Darwin was accepted far more swifyly than in the UK. This did have nasty implications, obviously, as it led to Social Darwinism and, ultimately, to Nazism.

There is a very interesting appendix where he offers several counter-arguments to Kant. Kant had an argument about a series of causes, with no beginning or end, which stretch back and forth into infinity. This would be the case if a human mind had no knowledge of causality. I can't remember Schopenhauer's objection to this, but I find the original argument fascinating. One of the central arguments here is that it is the intellect which mediates the perception of reality. This is instead of the mind simply perceiving reality and the intellect henceforth categorising it into an abstract concept. We actually use abstract concepts to make sense of objects.

I find philosophy to be at its most fascinating when the author systematises all of his beliefs. It feels as though he is trying to make sense out of everything he has ever perceived and read about. (In Schopenhauer's case, it did. He wrote this volume age 25, made small modifications before he died and wrote volume 2 during this period as well.) I like it when a author develops the idea, views it from different angles and questions the central idea's logic and cogency. I have grown to like this rigour, although it's certainly a lot more taxing to read than fiction or other non-fiction books. This book is still more readable, I am told, than stuff like Kant and Hegel, both of which I hope to approach one day.

The reason why I find the book life-affirming is that, for all of the pessimism, it's largely true. And, for all of the hopelessness, it's somewhat hopeful. If I have some sort of lofty ambition, I won't be able to realise it because there are other competing subjects and objects operating in a causal chain with their own lofty goals. Schopenhauer's individualism claims that we can attenuate this through art which is divorced from reality and, in more extreme cases, through denying our own desires. If we follow the latter route, we surely henceforth become more moralistic and compassionate. This is an account of the world which emphasises idealism (i.e. that pereption is generated thanks to thought rather than matter) whilst also recognising the reality of the physical world, the reality of our ontological selves (i.e. we are largely greedy and bent on personal gain) and the need to attenuate this through beauty (art) and compassion.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

I liked Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man because it is a book about racial politics and identity that doesn't lapse into preachy didacticism. The central character has ambitions to learn and write. Despite his erudition, he is thrown out of university for a minor incident. He is told that he is meant to be subservient, that he shouldn't be proud nor even have a personality. This is so simply because the lead character is black.

Once more, this is a book that celebrates individualism. The character joins a white Trotskyite group campaigning for racial equality. The protesters claim to use 'scientific' language (the Soviets did claim that dialectic materialism was a science). Enlisted for his brilliant oratorical skills, he finds himself at odds with them despite his ability to communicate effectively with the black community. He finds their collectivisation disingenuous. They are members within a collective and go under aliases. He finds that this goes against desires to affirm himself as an individual. He also finds that they have no understanding, nor even any genuine empathy, for the black community.

More than anything, I found that you do not need to be from a racial minority to connect with this book. This book will resonate with anyone who feels alienated and detached from others. Ellison writes wonderfully and there are some lovely Biblical speeches.

Los Siete Locos/Los Lanzallamas by Roberto Arlt

Arlt really isn't a good writer. The metaphors are clunky, he writes prolix sentences and the prose is completely flat. There is a sense in these books that he is simply writing as fast as possible to get the book down on paper. He says as much in the introduction.

I think that people do overstate all of the existentialist stuff when writing about these books. There's plenty of death-of-God-gloom here and it does predate Sartre. What mainly excites me about this book is the socio-economic context. The characters are all poor and have megalomaniacal intellectual schemes. They want to create a utopian socialist utopian ruled by Christianity. They want to finance it by finding a pot of gold in the Andes and by owning all of the brothels in Buneos Aires! All of the characters are eccentric (or 'locos') and have their own revolutionary intellectual pursuits. This is really grimy stuff. Afflicted characters, prostitutes, madmen - this is Dostoyevsky in the streets of Buenos Aires!

The Trial of Socrates by I. F. Stone

This book is a little odd. It is a ad-hominem indictment of Socrates, a figure who we only know about through second-hand sources. The author is a political journalist, not a historian.

Athens was the birthplace of democracy. Socrates was an anti-democrat. He was a metaphysical orator who did not partake in politics. He was a complete crank. However, he did teach figures like Critias who went on to found the League of Thirty who mounted a coup against Athens. When democracy was restored, Socrates was brought to trial. Stone argues that, whilst Athens was not correct in trialing Socrates and sentencing him to a death penalty, Socrates did not do himself any favours. Athens was a democratic society and extolled free speech. Socrates was anti-democratic and his beliefs were an affront to its democratic values.

What I found surprising when reading the book is that I found absolutely no ideological core to the political belief systems of Plato/Socrates. They want society to be led by someone 'who knows.' There is very little more to this beyond 'the meek must be led by the strong' kind of stuff. Meanwhile, all of our judicial systems and parliamentary politics are indebted to the Greeks. Theirs was even more advanced in that it was more participatory and direct. Democracy was a nascent idea which was already largely well-formed. Whilst Stone constantly invokes Stalin and Hitler, at least they turned to horrible justifications and appropriated thinkers to build a thought system which were incoherent.  

The problem I found with this books is that Stone constantly looks at events in antiquity from the bias of 20th century attitudes and values. Socrates and other thinkers are judged by our standards. Worse, he invokes recent despots instead of placing these thinkers more closely within the context of their times. Also, from what I gather Socrates is more well-known for his moralistic teaching and for his metaphysics than for his politics (as Stone writes, he largely abstained from politics). Still, the book is written with flair and it was fun to read.