Wednesday, December 17, 2014

History Man: The Life of R.G. Collingwood by Fred Inglis



Book under review

The merits of Amazon, online shopping, and e-books certainly deserves debate and consideration. How does an e-book differ from paper in how we perceive and appreciate a book? And will paper bookstores eventually die out under pressure from giants like Amazon? All good questions, but for me, here, now, it’s a lifesaver. Instead of the serendipity of the bookshelf, a computer algorithm led me to this and many other books. “R.G. Collingwood” as a search subject gave me not only Collingwood’s works but this biography as well. Also, while I could not browse the whole thing, I did download the sample and learn that the work intrigued me. Ah, not-so-dumb luck is my friend! 

Inglis, a fellow Brit academic with a wide array of interests and publications, proves himself an excellent biographer of the elusive figure of R.G. Collingwood. As befits Collingwood, Inglis eschews a cut-and-paste biography, opting instead to comment upon Collingwood’s work, thought, and intellectual progeny in addition to recounting the events of his life. The outline of Collingwood’s life is relatively simple, although his youth already raises possibilities. His parents were disciples of their Lake District neighbor, John Ruskin. Collingwood grew up with a musician mother and an artist father who pursued archeology, writing, and folklore. As a youth, Collingwood was off to Rugby school and then Oxford. Following the tradition of the time, he was immersed in the classics of Greece and Rome and the Western tradition as a whole. He graduated before the outbreak of the War, and (happily for him and us), he served in Naval Intelligence in London rather than in the trenches. After the War, he returned to Oxford and served as a professor of philosophy. He remained (broadly speaking) within the British idealist tradition, seemingly out of step with the likes of Russell, Wittgenstein (at least of the Tractatus), Ayer, and the logical positivists. Despite his relative isolation, and his devotion to archeology—he was active in excavating Roman ruins in Britain and elsewhere—he received an endowed chair at Oxford in the early 30s. 

While at the peak of his powers, Collingwood began suffering severe health problems caused foremost by uncontrolled high blood pressure. He became aware that he’d not lead a long life. This, along with the unfolding events in Europe (Nazism, Fascism, and Communism), and a breakdown of his marriage, led him to become as a man possessed, going on a writing and publishing frenzy before his death in January 1943. Alas, he was not able to bring his greatest work (or certainly most influential) work to publication, The Idea of History, but it did get published in 1946. It was but one part of his large output in the last decade of his life.
Collingwood's best-known work

Inglis takes us through these events, almost making the transformation of the man appear before our very eyes. In the early years, Collingwood comes across as unexceptional, almost bland. But then he brings forth a torrent of unique and invaluable thoughts on history, art, and Nature, as well as on current events. One of my few complaints is that Inglis, probably from a lack of access to more personal sources, doesn’t delve deeply into the breakdown of his first marriage and subsequent marriage and fatherhood (again) on what was, as he knew, very near his deathbed. I can’t help but wonder about this, not as a matter of prurient interest, but as to how a man of deep and profound thought (his chair was in moral philosophy) thought (or didn’t) through these issues. But this is a minor issue because Inglis does more than justice to Collingwood’s professional life and publications. 

For anyone interested in or wondering about Collingwood, I can’t imagine a better place to start. Collingwood isn’t a rock star of philosophy like Russell, Wittgenstein, or Ayer, to name but three fellow British academics, but his influence, especially in the realm of history, has been significant indeed. Inglis explores his influence on Charles Taylor, Peter Winch, Quentin Skinner, and Alastair McIntyre, among others. (I’d add Owen Barfield and John Lukacs). In doing so, Inglis provides a running commentary not only on Collingwood but also in his thought's relation to the world around us that I appreciated and enjoyed very much. 

Following are quotes that I excerpted from the book, a Cliff Notes of sorts of important points that I took from this most engaging book about this rather extraordinary man. 

From History Man:



The moral point of a biography is not to add a figure to some gallery of model lives for imitation, but to take from the bequests of the past lines of force for transformation.

Inglis, Fred (2009-07-06). History Man: The Life of R. G. Collingwood (p. 62). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition, citing Perry Anderson, Arguments within English Marxism (London: Verso, 1980), 98.


There is never much point, whether in aesthetic or philosophic criticism, in arguing for coherent patterns of thought in the life’s work of a thinker or a poet. The history of all thought is broken up into new starts, blind alleys, reactionary retreats, fake advances, whether in one person’s work or in a collective movement. Yet in a life, as in an epoch, we search out form and direction. A biography is an attempt to place a life against a moral horizon, to frame it with its recognisable landmarks and pathways.

Id. p. 81


My plan was to concentrate on the question, “What is Aristotle saying and what does he mean by it?” and to forgo, however alluring it might be, the further question “Is it true?”

Id. 86, quoting Collingwood, Autobiography [A] (27)


[Y]ou cannot find out what a man means by simply studying his spoken or written statements, even though he has spoken or written with perfect command of language and perfectly truthful intention. In order to find out his meaning you must also know what the question was (a question in his own mind, and presumed by him to be in yours) to which the thing he has said or written was meant as an answer. It must be understood that question and answer, as I conceived them, were strictly correlative. A proposition was not an answer, or at any rate could not be the right answer, to any question which might have been answered otherwise. . . . “you cannot tell what a proposition means unless you know what question it is meant to answer. . . . No two propositions . . . can contradict one another unless they are answers to the same question.”

Id. 88-89, quoting RGC


If we do not learn from the past—“ and we cannot otherwise learn at all”—we merely practise what Collingwood called “pseudo-history,” a wandering narrative in which there is no conception of purpose, and therefore no exercise of mind.

Id. 155, quoting Skinner, Visions of Politics, vol. 1, 89.


[I]n his best-known aphorism “all history is the history of thought,” which he took to mean that political theory is not an interminable anecdote summarising a sequence of remarks on politics made by consecutive theorists— by seven league boots from Plato to Nato, as the old joke has it— but is “the thought which occupies the mind of a man engaged in political work: the formation of a policy, the planning of means to execute it, the attempt to carry it into effect, the discovery that others are hostile to it, the devising of ways to overcome their hostility, and so forth.”

Id. 155, quoting RGC


For Churchill’s rhetoric in the House of Commons in 1940 turned precisely on the uncertain morale of his listeners, in the House and in the nation. That rhetoric was inseparable from the reasons for his policies. Reason and rhetoric were at one.

Id. 155-156


Knowledge for the historian is not the ordering and verification of propositions and statements, but the derivation of these from questions to which they serve as answers.

            Id. 156


[W]hat Collingwood commends is not so much a method or a technique for the historian of thought to follow as it is an understanding he or she will command of the constitution of the knowledge arrived at. What we know is constitutive of ourselves: historical self-knowledge (the construction of the Roman wall, the construction of Marx’s Capital, the decline and fall of the British Empire) goes towards the statutes of the human constitution.

            Id. 157


The history of art, the history of metaphysics, the history of the Roman wall are the same kinds of intellectual venture , and we shall only summon up the temerity to face down Collingwood’s terrific disdain when we add to the question-and-answer complex the necessity to determine enough of what the original agents felt as part of their thought. For it will become a premise of our revisions of Collingwood that all history is the history of thought inseparable from the moral sentiments that give it form.

Id. 158


Fifteen or so years later and after Collingwood’s death, eighty miles east of Oxford, Wittgenstein was inaugurating his revolution in philosophy from a bare room above Trinity Street, Cambridge . His racy, conversational wisdom matches with a startling likeness Collingwood’s ideas couched in such a very different idiom, though by a not dissimilar man.. “ So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true and what is false”— It is what human beings say that is true and false; and they agree in the language they use. That is not agreement in opinions but in form of life.. If language is to be a means of communication there must be agreement not only in definitions but also (queer as this may sound) in judgements. This seems to abolish logic but does not do so. It is one thing to describe methods of measurement, and another to obtain and state results of measurement. Hence the sociability of inquiry, the congeniality of judgement, the intractability of truth.

Id. 158-159


It is a point to labour, as being the very purpose of writing a fully historical biography; one, that is, that manages to re-create how a life was lived and then takes its moral measure again, two generations later. The mind searches for a style (in Nietzsche’s usage), shaped and reshaped by certain passions, which it struggles to make congenial to thought, and applies this style to the comprehension of its experience and the knowledge it will yield.

            Id. 192


 “History . . . cannot avoid the character of thought,” the inevitability of human judgement turns the mere succession of events into a world, and not only a world in implying a narrative, “but a world of ideas.” Oakeshott’s historian is a scholar rather than a plain person, a scholar putting herself or himself under the stern discipline never to suppose that the past is like the present, but one for whom the knowability of the past moves it into the present, renders it mobile and changeable, varying as the evidence for it increases, obliging us to interpret and believe it differently.

            Id. 194


A principle, rather, is an originary bearing provided for the mind; it is a primary orientation for thought; it is formative of the faculty of reasoning on a particular subject and as such will vary from time to time. Insofar as a body of principles provides a foundation for coherent thinking, it is not a foundation one can get to the bottom of (“After that, it is elephants all the way down”). The absoluteness of its presupposition is shadowy and guarded.In the play of principles, the passions form and inform the understanding. Passion has always been a difficulty for philosophers, and even Descartes’ great essay on The Passions of the Soul while paying homage to their power, leaves him with the old dualism, passion and reason.
                            Id. 209


As the image of a personal God recedes from the Western academies, so too does the feasibility , let alone the desirability, of the “view from nowhere.” If all moral and intellectual meditation and judgement must take place somewhere, and that somewhere is the spot on which the thinker lives and thinks, then having thought (including the re-enactment of the thoughts of others) sufficient unto the day will not be best accomplished by trying to expunge all feeling. It will be a matter of having the feelings best suited to the occasion in which one finds oneself. The hermeneutician seeks for those feelings that best enfold or comprehend the (historical) experience in view. Right feeling and just interpretation unite in a single action of mind.

            Id. 209


The historian’s picture of his subject, whether that subject be a sequence of events or a past state of things, thus appears as a web of imaginative construction stretched between certain fixed points provided by the statements of his authorities; and if these points are frequent enough and the threads spun from each to the next are constructed with due care, always by the a priori imagination and never by merely arbitrary fancy, the whole picture is constantly verified by appeal to these data, and runs little risk of losing touch with the reality which it represents.

           Id. 211, quoting Collingwood, The Idea of History [IH], 241-242



The good historian and the fictional detective think alike. From indications of the most suggestive kind— not so much the given as the found— each constructs an imaginary picture of what happened, an event conceived as the expression of the thoughts of those who acted it out. The facts, such as they are, are placed in an interpretative order by historian or detective. Their validation is consequence of the narrator’s plausibility and imaginative forcefulness. The sources, the facts, or— such a final-sounding word— the data are only as good as the historical hermeneutician can make them. “The a priori imagination which does the work of historical construction supplies the means of historical criticism as well.” [IH 245] Thus the usual opposition between criticism and creation is dissolved. As imaginative works of art, novel and history are indistinguishable. As a mode of thought with its own principles, however, the history must be truthful, and its story must be true.
Id. 212


The historian . . . is investigating not mere events (where by a mere event I mean one which has only an outside and no inside) but actions . . . his main task is to think himself into this action, to discern the thought of its agent. . . . For history, the object to be discovered is not the mere event, but the thought expressed in it. To discover that thought is already to understand it. . . . The history of thought, and therefore all history, is the re-enactment of past thought in the historian’s own mind. . . . It is not a passive surrender to the spell of another’s mind; it is a labour of active and therefore critical thinking. The historian not only re-enacts past thought, he re-enacts it in the context of his own knowledge and therefore, in re-enacting it, criticises it, forms his own judgement of its value, corrects whatever errors he can discern in it.”

            Id. 213-216


So it is, I remind my readers, that a biography is always in danger of becoming mere description, of forgetting the old saw of creative writing classes, “show, don’t tell,” of failing Henry James’s injunction, “dramatise, dramatise.” Expression in the art of biography, as in all the other arts, individualises; in our master’s voice, “Expression is an activity of which there can be no technique” (my italics), hence it is not an activity in the service of truth and truthfulness, it is those qualities actualised, individualised.

Id. 235

 “A true consciousness is the confession to ourselves of our feelings; a false consciousness would be disowning them . . . soon we learn to bolster up this self-deceit by attributing the disowned experience to other people.” 59 Spinoza is his master here, for whom the problem of ethics was the mastery of one’s feelings such that passio (undergoing things) is transformed into actio (doing things). Once a passion is clearly understood it ceases to be a passion.
            Id. 235


Its [Principles of Art] tests of truthfulness in consciousness apply as much to politics and history as to art; if corruption of consciousness is widespread (it was then, it is now), “Intellect can build nothing firm. Moral ideals are castles in the air. Political and economic systems are mere cobwebs. Even common sanity and bodily health are no longer secure. But corruption of consciousness is the same thing as bad art.”

Id. 236-237, quoting Collingwood, Principles of Art [PA], 265 


[A]ny one who is reasonably well acquainted with historical work knows that there is no such thing as an historical fact which is not at the same time a complex of historical facts. Such a complex of historical facts I call a “constellation.” If every historical fact is a constellation, the answer to the question “What is it that such and such a person was absolutely presupposing in such and such a piece of thinking?” can never be given by reference to one single absolute presupposition, it must always be given by reference to a constellation of them.

Id. 260, quoting Collingwood, Essay on Metaphysics [EM], 66


[G]ood historians . . . ask questions which they see their way to answering. It was a correct understanding of the same truth that led Monsieur Hercule Poirot to pour scorn on the “human blood-hound” who crawls about the floor trying to collect everything, no matter what, which might conceivably turn out to be a clue [as police searches unfailingly do]; and to insist that the secret of detection was to use what, with possibly wearisome iteration, he called “the little grey cells.” You can’t collect your evidence before you begin thinking, he meant: because thinking means asking questions (logicians, please note), and nothing is evidence except in relation to some definite question.

Id. 266, quoting Collingwood, Principles of History [PH] 37


Action expresses itself in language (including gesture— Res Gestae as he says), and “the business of language is to reveal thought.” 37 For “That great and golden-mouthed philosopher, Samuel Alexander . . . wished philosophers to learn . . . the all-importance of time, ‘the timefulness of things.’

Id. 266, quoting PH, 56


[R]e-enactment (to use once again the confounded term left unused throughout The Principles of History) is a matter of matching thought to feeling and vice versa, each as formative as the other. The interpretative task is to bring the play of thought and feeling into an inferred pattern; the historian replays feeling and thought (much as a musician replays a score) within as large a comprehending framework of human sympathy as he or she is capable of.

Id. 267


What man, at any stage of history, thinks of himself as dealing with, when we say that he is dealing with nature, is never nature as it is in itself but always nature as at that stage of history he conceives it. All history is the history of thought: and wherever in history anything called nature appears, either this name stands not for nature in itself but for man’s thought about nature, or else history has forgotten that it has come of age, and has fallen back into its old state of pupilage to natural science.

Id. 268, quoting PH, 98


Collingwood mounts . . .  one of the most pungent of the critiques of modern utilitarianism, pursuing the infinite regress of the utility test (this is useful because it leads to that which is useful, which leads to that which is useful . . . and so on). 60 Sooner or later, something is worthwhile for its own sake.

Id. 281


[H]is firm little lesson to his shipmate students brings out happily for my purposes just why and how the story of a thinker’s thought may be read in his brief friendship with an Orthodox priest to whom he spoke classical Greek, and in his admonitions to the young men— admonitions that Ruskin and T. S. Eliot would have endorsed— to dissolve secularism and utilitarianism into a love of the past -in-the-present and to envision the common good as a web of many significances.

            Id. 281


Probably there is never any point in contriving a perfect projection of the order of the books for the sake of biographical shapeliness. The unity he sought and I aim to reconstruct is the unity of his character in life and work, its style (in Nietzsche’s strong sense), and that way of thinking and feeling he worked at constructing on the page, and which could then bring together the man and his history such that each comprehended the other. It is a colossal ambition, of course, and in the end it breaks your heart. But not always the spirit. If that survives, the work and the man who made it live on in the lives and thought of those who follow. Which strong-sounding chord is not a finale; it merely returns us to that crux in the bequest of his thinking that he called “re-enactment”: the re-enacting of past thoughts (in this case his) in a different present. A properly historical biography will so re-enact the thoughts that we understand what he meant then, when he said it; thereafter the right biography will make it possible to turn those thoughts, resurrected from so different a moment, into something practical and rational now.

            Id. 284


Re-enactment is a matter of understanding the conventions of an historical argument in such a way as to recover the intentions of the writer. Those intentions will be apparent and re-creatable insofar as the writer writes well; well-made art, whether in prose, paint, or music, speaks with certitude.

            Id. 286-287


The past makes the present. As Louis Mink puts it in a neat little saw, we must understand backwards in order to think [or plan] forwards. Re-enactment is no more than thinking what has been thought exactly as it was thought then, so that the historical past can yield its lessons of difference, contrast, comparison, and does so as its differently ground optics show us contrastive and contradictory signification. Hobbes’s liberty is not ours, nor Cromwell’s pacification, whether of the Irish or the Levellers. Yet both have deposited their residue in our political formation. Our applications of the science of human affairs starts with a sufficiency of these reenactments, faithfully performed. This is the first form of the new science, history its content. Of itself, of course, it runs practice into theory. For history, the paramount form of theoretical knowledge, teaches understanding of how matters came to be the way they are. Duty, its corollary as dominant form of practical knowledge, teaches us freely to will what must be done.

Id. 287


But it may be doubted whether the author of The Essay on Metaphysics and New Leviathan would have so disapproved of the Philosophical Investigations. They shared a joint conviction that propositions have no common essence and doubted that truth is a correspondence between proposition and fact. They were at one in rejecting an account of knowledge as a blank apprehension of the facts . They both argued that inner states were only knowable, by oneself and others, by the making of outer expression. And they both thought that to demand something called “proof” for everything one believes is to sentence oneself to sterility.

            Id. 295-296


“A man’s duty on a given occasion is the act which for him is both possible and necessary: the act which at that moment character and circumstance combine to make it inevitable , if he has a free will, that he should freely will to do.”

Id. 298-299, quoting Collingwood, New Leviathan [NL], 124


To have rendered these things on the page is not to have expounded a thinker’s thoughts but to have dramatised a life. A biography— this biography—then attains the condition of art and further aspires to the condition of history . It is not likely that I have brought this off, but this is my ambition.

            Id. 313


In unacknowledged tandem with Wittgenstein, John Austin was, as his famous book puts it, teaching How to Do Things with Words, and dividing the practices (rather than the functions) of language into three: the locutionary (propositional), perlocutionary (performative), and illocutionary (effective).

            Id. 319


Adding J. L. Austin to Collingwood, [Quentin Skinner] wished to pursue not only what they said, but what they were doing as they said it. Were they persuading, affirming, subverting, or revising, when they rehearsed their doctrines to decidedly touchy and unpredictable princes? Hobbes’s truculence, More’s innocence, Machiavelli’s moral revisionism were all intentional devices purporting to win the intellectual day for their side. This goes deep. For once you radically historicise author and argument in this way, you hit hard against their sheer incommensurability with contemporary certainties about what really matters. Skinner returns to the arguments of the past in order to bring back to the present disconcerting truths (true, that is, as being part of a factual historical record) about the way, for example, people in the Italian city-states of the early Renaissance thought about what is right rather than about rights, about the common good rather than private pleasure, about their duty to maintain the conditions of liberty rather than about their licence to do what they liked.

            Id. 335
 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Who Is Owen Barfield? (And Connections with Collingwood & Lukacs)


Owen Barfield (1898-1997)

My reading has taken a recent turn into the philosophy of history, an unfortunate phrase in some ways, but suffice it to say it involves thinking about how we understand history. I turned from a short book on the history of rhetoric to some writings of Quentin Skinner about how to understand the history of political thinking. Skinner reports that R. G. Collingwood influenced him. Collingwood again! Last year, after having known for some time that I should tackle Collingwood, I bought one of those magnificently inexpensive South Asian editions of The Idea of History (1946/revised ed. 1994), Collingwood’s posthumously published masterwork on the topic. I shipped it back to America, not knowing that in China my reading and thinking would turn in this direction. (Alas, it’s not on Kindle.) 

Of course, readers of this blog will expect that I would turn to John Lukacs in this topic as well, although, since it’s confession time, I’ve never done a complete read through of Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past (1968/1985), Lukac’s masterwork (but far from only work) about history as a subject. When reading Lukacs now, the name of Owen Barfield (b. 1898) comes up, a name I know but a body of thought that I’ve never completely gotten a handle upon. Lukacs mentions Barfield as a source of thinking about “participatory knowing”. A number of years ago I read  two of Barfield’s most prominent works, Saving the Appearances (1957) and History, Guilt, and Habit (1957). (His Coleridge book sat on my shelf of a long time, and it lies in wait for me like buried treasure.) How do you pigeonhole Barfield? You don’t. Philosopher, anthropologist, literary scholar, or a bit of a kook? Like most intriguing thinkers, he trashes boundaries and goes off seeking answers where he may. I could not get him on one pass. 

Owen Barfield was born in 1898 and lived—remaining active and lucid—to 1997. He graduated from Oxford just after the War. Collingwood graduated just before the War and accepted a faculty position at Oxford shortly after the War, beginning his tenure as a professor of philosophy. (I’ve found no record that the two of them ever had any direct contact.) Barfield was a literary man, and took his degree in literature. 


Friend, fellow Inkling, & godfather to Barfield's daughter Lucy, to whom he dedicated a book
Also, while at Oxford, he met C.S. “Jack” Lewis, with whom his name is inevitably linked. They developed a friendship and became intellectual sparring partners: Barfield in the early 1920s found an intellectual beacon in the writings of Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian mystic (for lack of a more precise term) and founder of Anthroposophy. Lewis, of course, later became a Christian. Lewis and Barfield, together with J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams, formed The Inklings, an informal literary group. But while Lewis and Tolkien took up academic positions at Oxford, Barfield was called to his family business in London and began work full time as a solicitor (transaction lawyer). He remained in this position until 1959, when he retired and turned his full attention to writing and speaking. 

Barfield published his first book, History in English Words (1926) about how meanings of words change over time reflecting changes in the way people think about the world. While Barfield’s output was limited during his time working as a solicitor, he did publish Poetic Diction: The Recovery of Meaning (1928) (based on his thesis at Oxford), and he drafted Saving the Appearances, which is perhaps his most well known work. He moved from a fascination with words and Romantic poetry to the study about how consciousness has evolved and how human self-knowledge has changed over history. Put in the broadest terms, Barfield argues that human consciousness once enjoyed a participatory knowledge of nature and world around it, but that has been lost and now seeks a new source. Barfield’s project is a wide-scale inquiry into how we know and how that way of knowing has changed during history. Barfield doesn’t believe we can go back, but he ponders how we might move forward. 

R.G. Collingwood (1889-1943), fellow Oxfordian
It appears that Barfield addresses Collingwood’s work directly in later works. Barfield, after retiring as a solicitor in the late 1950’s, enjoyed a second career as an academic lecturer and teacher in the U.S., lecturing and teaching at Brandeis University, Drew University, and the University of Missouri, among others. In Speaker’s Meaning (1967), Barfield addresses Collingwood’s work. Collingwood argues that we imaginatively re-enact history when we consider a historical topic. In fact, all history is the history of human thought according to Collingwood. While I don’t have access to these Barfield books, interplay between Barfield’s work and Collingwood’s intrigues me. 

John Lukacs, active Hungarian-American historian
John Lukacs has cited Barfield in his books, such as Historical Consciousness (available via Google Books) and The Future of History. Lukacs participated in a Barfield Centenary Celebration put on jointly by Columbia University and Drew University (New Jersey). (Alas. I have no record of his remarks.) I can’t now detail all of Lukac’s references to Barfield, nor can I now explore the ties and influences, but as I note below, I hope to do so later. 

T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Howard Nemerov, Saul Bellow, Walker Percy, Harold Bloom, James Hillman, and William Irwin Thompson (not to mention Lukacs) are among those who have praised Barfield's work. (See David Lavery’s “Friends of Owen Barfield” site for a more detailed list.) Yet, like Lukacs, he seems relatively unknown and underappreciated. I hope to bring together something showing how in time, space, and thought Collingwood, Barfield, and Lukacs connect in their thinking about history and human understanding (or knowing) in general. I believe that there are some intriguing possibilities to explore.  

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thoughts & Quotes, No. 1

Below is a new venture. I'm attempting to keep track of some random quotes or thoughts that I think worth sharing and to post them on a monthly basis. I will attempt to keep them short, but as you'll see with one article by John Lukacs, I just couldn't relent from taking a number of quotes from an essay that he wrote. Unless otherwise attributed, what I'll refer as "thoughts" are my own, although I'm not sure I ever think any truly original thoughts. Fortunately, I'm not too carried away with the anxiety of influence. I can't afford to be.



10.16.14

Purification is the key to development of Equanimity. Get rid of the junk & the “Buddha Mind" will appear. It’s hidden beneath the grime of existence (karma). 

And purification requires renunciation (forgoing some things you enjoy). 

Fangfu: “Freedom results from having no desires.” Socrates Code @ 2005 (Kindle location). Extreme. 

What’s the point of meditation?

[M]any years of intensive spiritual practice had succeeded in clearing [Buddha’s] mind, and one day an early childhood memory bubbled up. Left to himself under a tree by the side of a field in which his father was supervising the ritual plowing, Siddhartha had relaxed into a state of pure presence— a condition of open, amplified awareness in which he saw everything perfectly, just as it was. Feeling with his whole body and mind the clarity, grace, and power of that remembered state, Siddhartha knew he had found the way forward at last.

Patrick Ophuls, The Buddha Takes No Prisoners, p. 8.

How to get good at meditation: 

So practice is everything . Whatever your talent for meditation, you cannot succeed without practicing ; whatever your lack of talent, you can succeed by practicing. If you produce the perspiration, the inspiration will come— 

Patrick Ophuls, The Buddha Takes No Prisoners, p. 50.

A real nugget about politics:

How Things Should Be is the central question and struggle of politics. . . .  

Tim Kreider, “Our Greatest Political Novelist?”, New Yorker

10.20.14

Everything that we do, we do to change our state of consciousness. ~Sam Harris

“Energy is eternal delight”—William Blake
 
11.18.14

But isn’t objectivity an ideal? No: because the purpose of human knowledge—indeed, of human life itself—is not accuracy, and not even certainty; it is understanding.

Below is a case of my getting carried away with quotes from a single article, but it’s John Lukacs, so I’m sure you’ll indulge me (or more likely ignore it). Anyway, I’m leaving it in for your edification. 

John Lukacs, “Putting Man Before Descartes”, American Scholar, December 2008

Can we expect a Jewish man to be objective about Hitler? Perhaps not. Yet we may expect him or anyone to attempt to understand. And that attempt must depend on the how, on the very quality of his participation, on the approach of his own mind, including at least a modicum of understanding of his own self. After all, Hitler and Stalin were human beings, so they were not entirely or essentially different from any other person now thinking about them.

The ideal of objectivity is the antiseptic separation of the knower from the known. Understanding involves an approach to bring the two closer. But there is, there can be, no essential separation of the knower from the known.

Words are not finite categories but meanings—what they mean to us. They have their own histories and lives and deaths, their magical powers and limits.

Historical knowledge—indeed, any kind of human knowledge—is necessarily subjective. That is what I tended to think in my early 20s. Soon I found that I was wrong. Subjectivity is merely the obverse side of objectivism and objectivity; there is something wrong with the entire Cartesian coin, of a world divided into object and subject, because subjectivism as much as objectivism is determinist.

According to subjectivism I can think and see in only one (my) way; he in another (his) way. This is wrong, because thinking and seeing are creative acts coming from the inside, not the outside. Which is why we are responsible both for how and what we do or say as well as for how and what we think and see (or, for what we want to think and for what we want to see).

This is how and why the history of ideas is almost always woefully incomplete: not what but when it is that people are finally willing to hear something.

the more objective our concept of the mountain, the more abstract that mountain becomes.

What will, what must endure is the piecemeal recognition that the division of the world into objects and subjects belongs to history, as does every other human creation: that whatever realities objectivity and its practical applications contained and may still contain, they are not perennial, not always and not forever valid.

Knowledge, which is neither objective nor subjective, is always personal. Not individual: personal. The concept of the individual has been one of the essential misconceptions of political liberalism. Every human being is unique, but he does not exist alone. He is dependent on others (a human baby for much longer than the offspring of other animals); his existence is inseparable from his relations with other human beings.

Our knowledge is not only personal; it is also participant. There is—yet there cannot be—a separation of the knower from the known. We must see further than this. It is not enough to recognize the impossibility (perhaps even the absurdity) of the ideal of their antiseptic, objective separation. What concerns—or should concern—us is something more than the inseparability; it is the involvement of the knower with the known.

Detachment from one’s passions and memories is often commendable. But detachment, too, is something different from separation; it involves the ability (issuing from one’s willingness) to achieve a stance of a longer or higher perspective. The choice for such a stance does not necessarily mean a reduction of one’s personal interest, of participation—perhaps even the contrary.

Did—does—matter exist independent of the human mind? It did and it does; but, without the human mind, matter’s existence is meaningless—indeed, without the human mind, we cannot think of its existence at all. In this sense it may even be argued that mind preceded and may precede matter (or what we see and then call “matter”).

Causality—the how and why—has varied forms and meanings (Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas listed four); but for centuries the terms of mechanical causality have dominated our world and our categories of thinking. All of the practical applications of science, everything that is technical, inevitably depend on the three conditions of mechanical causality: (1) the same causes must have the same effects; (2) there must be an equivalence of causes and effects; (3) the causes must precede their effects. None of this necessarily applies to human beings, to the functioning of their minds, to their lives, and especially to their history.

In life, in our histories, there are effects that may, at times, even precede causes. For instance the fear or anticipation that something may or may not happen may cause it to happen (a view of “a future” may cause “a present”).

mechanical causality is insufficient to understand the functioning of our minds and consequently of our lives—and even the sense and the meaning of our memories. Every human action, every human thought is something more than a reaction. (That is how and why history never repeats itself.) The human mind intrudes into and complicates the very structure of events.
It is arguable that the two greatest intellectual achievements of the now-ended age of 500 years have been the invention (invention, rather than discovery) of the scientific method and the development of historical thinking.

Consider how the natural (natural here means instinctive but not insightful) ability to operate devices is normal for young, sometimes even very young, people who do not at all mind comparing or even imagining themselves as akin to machines, unaware as they are of the complexity and the uniqueness of human nature.

Machines may make people’s physical lives easier, but they do not make their thinking easier. I am writing not about happiness or unhappiness but about thinking. It is because of thinking, because of the inevitable mental intrusion into the structure and sequence of events, that the entire scheme of mechanical causality is insufficient.

How much more timely is Wendell Berry’s warning in 1999, exactly 250 years later: “It is easy for me to imagine that the next great division of the world will be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines.”

At this stage of my argumentation, someone may ask: Are these not merely the opinions of an old-fashioned humanist? A poet or even a historian of a particular kind may see the realities of the world otherwise from how (and why) a natural scientist may see them. They represent Two Cultures, a humanistic and a scientific one. . . . There may be dualities in our reactions, but—more important—there is increasing evidence that, ever since Descartes and others, the dual division of the world into objects and subjects, into known and knower, is no longer valid. And such evidence is not only there in the so-called humanities, but, during the general crisis at the end of the 20th century, in physics, too, involving the very study of matter.


Energy may be transformed into matter or heat or light; but energy is a potentiality. An accurate definition or a measurement of the temperature of an atom is impossible, because its very existence is only a probability.

But in history, unlike in law, events and men may be tried and judged again and again. History is subject to multiple jeopardy; it is potentially revisionable.

The historian must always keep in mind the potentiality that this or that may have happened otherwise.

the condition that every historical actuality includes a latent potentiality (also, that human characteristics, including mental ones, are not categories but tendencies).

What science amounts to is a probabilistic kind of knowledge with its own limits, because of the limitations of the human mind, including the mental operations and the personal character of scientists themselves, which could range from sublime to fallible. There is only one kind of knowledge, human knowledge, with the inevitability of its participation, with the inevitable relationship of the knower to the known, of what and how and why and when a man knows and wishes to know.


At the beginning of the modern age, some five centuries ago, Bacon wrote: “Knowledge is power.” Near the end of this age, we know, or ought to know, that the increase of power—including mental power—tends to corrupt.

Because of this recognition of the human limitations of theories, indeed, of knowledge, this assertion of our centrality—in other words, of a new, rather than renewed, anthropocentric and geocentric view of the universe—is not arrogant or stupid. To the contrary: it is anxious and modest.

The known and visible and measurable conditions of the universe are not anterior but consequent to our existence and to our consciousness. The universe is such as it is because in the center of it there exist conscious and participant human beings who can see it, explore it, study it.

Keep in mind that all prevalent scientific concepts of matter, and of the universe, are models. A model is man-made, dependent on its inventor. A model cannot, and must not, be mistaken for the world.

History (and our knowledge of the world) swings back, but not along the arc where it once was. Because of our present historical and mental condition, we must recognize, and proceed from a chastened view of ourselves, of our situation, at the center of our universe. For our universe is not more or less than our universe. That has been so since Adam and Eve, including Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Heisenberg, and my own dual, because human (opinionated as well as humble), self.

Our thinking of the world, our imagination (and we imagine and see together) anthropomorphizes and humanizes everything, even inanimate things, just as our exploration of the universe is inevitably geocentric. “Know Thyself” is the necessary fundament of our understanding of other human beings, but we can never go wholly outside of ourselves, just as we can never go outside the universe to see it.

The arguments of creationism against evolutionism entirely miss this essential matter. The language of those creationists and anti-Darwinists who proclaim the existence of an Intelligent Design is ludicrous: it reduces God to a role model of a rocket scientist or of a brilliant computer programmer. The matter is the unavoidable contradiction not between Evolution and Creation but between evolution and history. History, because in the entire universe we are the only historical beings. Our lives are not automatic; we are responsible for what we do, say, and think. The coming of Darwinism was historical; it appeared at a time of unquestioned progress. But its essence was, and remains, antihistorical. It elongated the presence of mankind to an ever-increasing extent, by now stretching the first appearance of man on this earth to more than a million years—implying that consequently there may be something like another million years to come for us. Ought we not to question this kind of progressive optimism, especially at a time when men are capable of altering nature here and there and of destroying much of the world, including many of themselves?
 
11.30.2014

Man … has no nature,” wrote the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. “[W]hat he has is …history… . Man … finds that he has no nature other than what he has himself done.”

“The error of the old doctrine of progress lay in affirming a priori that man progresses toward the better.”

            Jose Ortega y Gasset, quoted in the Introduction to The Remembered Past, “a collection of Lukacs’s greatest writings on history, historians, and historical knowledge”.