March 8, 2007
I saw a Chinese movie called “Together” (2003). I recommend it — good movie. A boy who is a gifted violinist has two different violin teachers: one who can put him on the road to fame and fortune, and one who says that a musician should enjoy playing music. His father, a peasant from the countryside, wants his son to gain fame and fortune, so he prefers the first teacher. As for the boy.... well, I don’t want to spoil it for you. The plot draws you along, and comes together neatly at the end. Some good classical-music scenes.
For the last year or two, I’ve been arguing that the most fundamental distinction in philosophy is the distinction between rational philosophy and non-rational philosophy. I’ve been taking the side of non-rational philosophy, and opposing rational philosophy. Does this distinction have any political import? Do rational philosophers, for example, tend to be liberal? Do non-rational philosophers tend to be conservative?
Traditional conservatives tend to be wary of reason, but today’s conservatives tend to be fond of reason. One traditional conservative who was wary of reason was Edmund Burke. Burke criticized the French revolutionaries for following reason, and for ignoring customs and traditions. In Burke’s day, The Left followed reason, and advocated revolution to overthrow regimes that didn’t live up to the dictates of reason. Burke cautioned against revolution, and the bloodshed that accompanied the French Revolution seemed to vindicate Burke’s attitude.
Like the French revolutionaries, Marx and his disciples followed reason, and advocated revolution. The bloodshed that accompanied Marxist regimes in Russia, China, Cambodia, etc. seemed to vindicate the conservative view that reason was a dangerous guide in the political arena.
The English Radicals of the early 1800s — Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, etc. — didn’t spill blood, but they strengthen the argument that The Left was fond of reason, and fond of revolutionary change.
In the mid-20th century, the British writer Michael Oakeshott continued the conservative tradition of Burke. Oakeshott’s book Rationalism in Politics argues that rational thinking begets utopian schemes and radical policies. An observer of academia would conclude that Oakeshott’s view is correct, since academia has a clear tendency toward liberal thinking, coupled with an equally clear tendency toward rational thinking, as shown by its horror of the occult.
In our time, however, a new tendency has emerged. The Straussian School, which includes prominent conservatives like Bill Kristol and Harvey Mansfield, is fond of reason but takes a conservative approach to politics. While Burke cautioned against revolution, today’s conservatives advocated regime change, revolutionary change, in Iraq. Now it’s The Right that talks about Universal Principles (as the French revolutionaries once did), and The Left that talks about respecting customs and traditions (as Burke once did). Hopefully, The Iraq Project will turn out well, but so far it has produced the sort of bloodshed that rationalistic policies produced before.
Should we conclude that rationalism doesn’t necessarily lead to a particular approach to politics, that rationalism can be conservative or liberal? Or is the current situation an anomaly? Will the long-standing link between rationalism and The Left re-assert itself, and relegate the Straussian position to the status of a footnote?
Is there any connection between the Philosophy of Kierkegaard and the Philosophy of Today? At first glance, no. Kierkegaard was a passionate Christian, while the Philosophy of Today has more interest in Zen than in Christianity. A close look at Kierkegaard, however, reveals a surprising number of parallels between his philosophy and the Philosophy of Today. Both philosophies
Kierkegaard speaks of the “suspension of the ethical” in the name of religion. Kierkegaard recommended living by spontaneous feelings, not rational principles: “It is acting ‘on principle’ which does away with the vital distinction which constitutes decency. For decency is immediate.... It has its seat in feeling and in the impulse and consistency of an inner enthusiasm. ‘On principle’ one can do anything.”1
PEAR has closed. PEAR stands for “Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research”. An article in the New York Times describes PEAR as “a Princeton lab on ESP,” and said that, “Over almost three decades, a small laboratory at Princeton University managed to embarrass university administrators, outrage Nobel laureates, entice the support of philanthropists and make headlines around the world with its efforts to prove that thoughts can alter the course of events.”2
PEAR aroused opposition from academics who are uncomfortable with the occult, and don’t want their worldview turned on its head. The Times article quoted one scholar who said, “We know people have ideas beyond the mainstream but if they want funds for research they have to go through peer review, and the system is going to be very skeptical of ideas that are inconsistent with what is already known.” In an earlier issue, I questioned the “peer review” concept.
The director of PEAR was a prominent scientist, Robert Jahn. Dean Radin mentioned Jahn and his lab in his book, The Conscious Universe. Jahn is a member of the Society for Scientific Exploration, a Society that tries to support iconoclastic thinking; many PEAR experiments were published in that Society’s journal. The Society’s website says that it “seeks to promote the improved understanding of the central role that anomalies have played in advancing scholarly knowledge throughout the history of science and of the human tendencies that can limit the scope of scientific inquiry, such as restrictive world views, unrecognized theoretical assumptions, and dogmatic approaches to the interpretation of empirical evidence.”
Our book group is now reading Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller, Blink. After Blink, we’re going to read Ibsen’s play, Emperor and Galilean, which will prepare us for our next book, Steven Sage’s Ibsen and Hitler.
I enjoyed Blink immensely. It’s short, clear, and readable. I’m interested in the major thesis, and I’m also interested in the stories that Gladwell tells to support his thesis. Since I’m a champion of the classics, I hate to admit how enjoyable a contemporary bestseller can be. Blink was difficult for me to put down, it made me late for appointments.
Since it takes a dim view of rational thinking, Blink dovetails with what I call the Philosophy of Today. But while Gladwell’s conclusions are similar to mine, his approach is entirely different: he draws his evidence from the contemporary scene, and from academic research, whereas I draw my evidence from literary and historical sources. Also, I discuss not only the power of unconscious thinking, but also the power of the occult, and the mysterious forces in every corner of the universe. Gladwell, on the other hand, steers clear of the occult, even speaks scornfully of it on occasion. Furthermore, Gladwell only talks about people, he doesn’t try to connect man to the universe, he doesn’t try to connect psychology to physics, as I do.
Gladwell discusses a fireman who used rapid cognition, non-rational thinking, to escape danger and save his comrades. The fireman ordered everyone out of a building just before it collapsed. Gladwell quotes Gary Klein, a “decision-making expert”:
Notice Gladwell’s scorn for the occult, for ESP. Gladwell goes on to argue that this was a case of unconscious thinking, not ESP.
Gladwell discusses a Greek statue purchased by the Getty Museum. Before buying the statue, the museum had lawyers evaluate documents pertaining to it, and they had a geologist evaluate the marble in it. The geologist was so proud of his evaluation that he published an article about it in Scientific American. The lawyers and the geologist said it was a bona fide antique, but it turned out to be a forgery. Gladwell mentions several experts who “smelled a rat” as soon as they saw the statue. The museum, however, put its faith in the lawyers and the geologist who took a rational approach, rather than the art experts who had hunches, intuitions.
Gladwell mentions our old friend Bernard Berenson, who also used a non-rational approach when evaluating art works:
Gladwell says that the investor George Soros also makes decisions based on hunches, back pains, etc.
One chapter in Blink is called “Kenna’s Dilemma: The Right — and Wrong — Way to Ask People What They Want.” When I started reading this chapter, I had never heard of Kenna. Now I realize that Kenna is a rock star. Gladwell says that when Kenna was getting started, his music was popular with people in the music industry, but the general public didn’t like his music — at least, they didn’t like it when they were asked to evaluate it. Gladwell describes soda companies and furniture companies who had similar problems: initial tests said, “no good, I don’t like it,” but eventually the public liked it. So the question is, “how can you test what people really like? Does a sip of soda tell you what kind of soda people really like? Does a snippet of music suffice to test a musician’s popularity?” How can people be taught to like something that seems strange at first? Coleridge said that radically new poetry “must create the taste whereby it is appreciated.”
I’m reminded of the reception of Proust’s work: initially people said, “I can’t stand it, I clutched my head in pain,” but gradually Proust found a following, and now he’s popular the world over. As Gladwell says, “testing products or ideas that are truly revolutionary [is difficult] and the most successful companies are those that understand that in those cases, the first impressions of their consumers need interpretation.”5 As for Kenna, “his music was new and different, and it is the new and different that is always most vulnerable to market research.”6 Proust would agree.
Proust would also agree when Gladwell sings the praises of non-rational thinking. After all, one of Proust’s key experiences was eating a cookie that awakened unconscious memories, vivid memories. Proust says that a conscious effort to recall the past is less effective than an accidental recalling that is triggered by a taste or smell.
The last chapter of Blink is called “Seven Seconds in the Bronx: The Delicate Art of Mind Reading.” It discusses the Amadou Diallo case, in which an unarmed black man was shot and killed by four white policemen. It talks about how people with autism can’t read faces, and how people under extreme stress are also unable to read faces. In the Diallo case, the policemen were under extreme stress, since they thought Diallo was armed and dangerous. The policemen failed to read Diallo’s facial expressions, failed to perceive that he was frightened rather than aggressive; stress had made the policemen autistic.
Gladwell says that stress raises our heart rate. Up to a certain point, this increases our competence, but beyond that point, we become incompetent. One policeman involved in a stressful shooting incident said, “[Time] had slowed down during the shooting. That started as soon as [the suspect] started toward us. Even though I knew he was running at us, it looked like he was moving in slow motion. Damnedest thing I ever saw.”7 Gladwell summarizes:
Gladwell calls this state “the optimal range of arousal.”9 The slowing down of time, the sense that people are moving in slow motion.... isn’t this a remarkable example of the relativity of time?
When the heart rate rises above 145 beats per minute, this “optimal range” is exceeded, and mental and physical functioning begin to break down.
One of the most fascinating sections of Blink is the section about two students of facial expressions, Tomkins and Ekman (see chapter 6, section 2). Tomkins was the elder, who pioneered the field, Ekman the younger, who developed Tomkins’ ideas into a vast system. “Tomkins believed that faces... held valuable clues to inner emotions and motivations.... ‘He would watch the show To Tell the Truth, and without fail he could always pick out the people who were lying,’ his son Mark recalls. ‘He actually wrote the producer at one point to say it was too easy.’”
Ekman spent seven years studying facial muscles, all the possible expressions, and all the combinations thereof, eventually identifying 3,000 expressions. Ekman called his system the Facial Action Coding System (FACS).
The work of Tomkins and Ekman is of interest to anyone interested in human nature, of interest to any humanist. Surely Leonardo would devour Ekman’s book, if he were alive today. Ekman’s work will interest historians and biographers, especially those who are studying people who have been filmed.
Going further back in history, Ekman studies a tape of the famous spy, Kim Philby:
I’m continuing Huck Finn. It’s a good book to read aloud — full of action and humor. It’s good for children, even better for adults. When H. L. Mencken was old and infirm, William Manchester read Huck Finn aloud to him. (When Manchester was 29, he wrote Disturber of the Peace: The Life of H. L. Mencken.)
Twain reminds me of Nietzsche insofar as he scorns the common man, and admires the aristocrat. This attitude is apparent early in the novel when he describes Huck’s father, who is from the lower class. Huck’s father is a vagrant and a drunk. Judge Thatcher takes him in, and tries to reform him:
Twain’s description of the Arkansas rabble fairly drips with contempt:
Now listen to Huck’s description of Col. Grangerford:
Twain’s hero-aristocrats always stand alone, against the mob; they never appear in twos or threes. They have a particular physical appearance, and occupy a particular place in society — often a judge, in this case an officer (colonel). Later in the novel, we meet another colonel, Colonel Sherburn, who is being taunted by the local drunk, Boggs:
Sherburn shoots Boggs, killing him. A lynch mob goes after Sherburn:
In addition to Colonel Grangerford and Colonel Sherburn, another character who is favorably portrayed is Dr. Robinson. Again we see the high position in society (doctor), again we see the aristocratic appearance (“a big iron-jawed man”16). When the two rapscallions (whom Huck refers to as the king and the duke) pretend to be the heirs of Peter Wilks, Dr. Robinson realizes that they’re frauds, and laughs in their face. The crowd, however, sides with the king and the duke. When the king and the duke talk privately, the duke says he’s worried about Dr. Robinson, but the king says, “Cuss the doctor! What do we k’yer for HIM? Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?”17 Twain’s contempt for the majority reminds one of Ibsen’s Dr. Stockman (as well as Nietzsche). Likewise, Twain’s belief that breeding is “worth as much in a man as it is in a horse”18 reminds one of Stockman.
When the king and the duke put on a nonsense-show called The Royal Nonesuch, the crowd is angry until “a big, fine looking man” addresses them, and suggests a response to the swindle.19 Later we learn that the “big, fine looking man” is a judge.
Notice how Twain emphasizes that his hero-aristocrats are “big,” “very tall,” etc. I’m reminded of a chapter in Gladwell’s Blink, a chapter in which he discusses how people are impressed by stature, and often choose tall men to fill high positions. “In the U.S. population,” Gladwell writes, “about 14.5 percent of all men are six feet or taller. Among CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, that number is 58 percent.... Most of us... automatically associate leadership ability with imposing physical stature.”20
|1.|| The Present Age back|
|2.|| New York Times, February 10, 2007 back|
|3.|| ch. 4, #3 back|
|4.|| Ch. 2, introductory back|
|5.|| Ch. 5, #4. Coleridge quote is from The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes, Ch. 10, footnote. back|
|6.|| ibid back|
|7.|| ch. 6, #5 back|
|8.|| ibid back|
|9.|| ibid back|
|10.|| ch. 6, #2. In case you’re wondering “who is Peck?” here’s some information I found on the Internet:
|11.|| ch. 6, #3 back|
|12.|| Ch. 5 back|
|13.|| Ch. 18 back|
|14.|| Ch. 21 back|
|15.|| Ch. 22 back|
|16.|| Ch. 25 back|
|17.|| Ch. 26 back|
|18.|| Ch. 18, quoted above back|
|19.|| Ch. 23 back|
|20.||see ch. 3, #2 back|