Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Kant and Copernicus

There's a sad truth about books with brilliant theories that change the world.  They often don't even cause a ripple, not at first.  And the audience for the book, the educated elite, sneers at it.

That's what happened to Kant after the publication of A Critique of Pure Reason in 1781.  Poor chap!  Here he had reformulated the whole basis of western philosophy and all he got for it was a few crank calls.

But the dear old chap set to work.  He published in 1783 the Dummies version of the Critique, a Prolegomena for Any Future Metaphysics.  Then in 1787 out came the heavily revised second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason.  It's in the preface to the second edition that Kant makes a bid for world domination.  Copernicus, he writes,
when he did not make good progress in the explanation of the celestial motions if he assumed that the entire celestial host revolves around the observer, tried to see if he might not have greater success if he made the observer revolve and let the stars at rest.
 Yeah, Manny.  Why not compare yourself with the Great One!

Kant's revolution is a little different from the Copernican revolution.  He's not concerned with the motions of the planets.  He just wants to know how we cognize the world.  As he says: "up to now it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to the objects" but all our efforts on this line have "come to nothing."  So let's do it the other way around, he writes.  Let's assume "that the objects must conform to our cognition" on the view that our minds organize the world using "categories" to interpret the appearances of the world, so establishing "something about the objects before they are given to us."

One of the rewarding things about studying chaps like Kant is to see how these brilliant pioneers are getting the first fuzzy view of what the average bear takes for granted today.  In Leibniz we get the idea of "monads" which are non-visible elements of everything but which cannot be directly experienced.  That's an wonderful guess at our modern idea of "quanta" that we moderns have cognized using the penetrating power of what Locke called "microscopical eyes" and we call particle accelerators.

Then Kant, with his idea that the mind organizes reality according to categories formed in the mind, brilliantly prefigures modern knowledge about the brain and the way we organize the impulses coming into our brains from our senses.  I remember seeing a documentary as a kid where they gave people "upside-down" eye-glasses that made everything look upside down.  After about a month, the brains of the test subjects inverted the image the subject saw.  So then, if they took off the glasses, the world looked upside down again.

Then, of course, there is Noam Chomsky's idea that we are already programmed to do language before we start to speak.

Kant's brilliant step is to say: look, let's stop worrying about what the really-real is like.  Let's just think about how we experience the world and function in it.  Let's not worry about "things-in-themselves" when the only thing we know is what we experience, the appearances that we organize in our minds.

Today, two centuries after Kant, the latest "truth" about the really-real is that the universe is completely empty, except for tiny dots.  And the tiny dots turn out to be almost empty except for tiny nano-dots deep in the middle of the tiny dot.  The solidity that we experience with our eyes is just electromagnetic radiation in the "visible" part of the spectrum thrown off by pesky electrons fuzzing around a tiny dot.   If you illuminate an object with, e.g., X-rays, you see something completely different.

Of course, just as Marx turned Hegel upside down, converting Hegel's idealism into materialism, so Kant turned Copernicus upside down.  Copernicus said let's stop putting the observer at the center of the universe and put the sun at the center instead.  Kant said let's stop putting the objects out in the world at the center of our world and put the individual a priori cognition at the center of our understanding of the objects out in the world.

Hey, whatever floats your boat.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The History of the Ego

I've always thought that Michelangelo's vestibule and staircase to the Laurentian Library in Florence represents the Birth of the Ego.   At that moment, the artist and the architect ceased being a mere craftsman executing art for a client, but a fully fledged ego.  Now art was about the artist, not about the art.

But I was wrong.

In "Religious Evolution," a paper published in 1964, Robert Bellah puts the birth of the ego much earlier.  He puts it back in the Axial Age when Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhim, and Confucianism all began.  He calls them "historical religions", to differentiate them from the archaic religions that came before.  In the historical religion, the idea of the "self" clearly appears.
The identity diffusion characteristic of both primitive and archaic religions is radically challenged by the historic religious symbolization, which leads for the first time to a clearly structured conception of the self.  Devaluation of the empirical world and the empirical self highlights the conception of a responsible self, a core self or a true self, deeper than the flux of everyday experience, facing a reality over against itself, a reality which has a consistency belied by the fluctuations of mere sensory impressions... [T]he historic religions promise man for the first time that he can understand the fundamental structure of reality and through salvation participate actively in it.  The opportunity is far greater than before but so is the risk of failure.
And that is why, in the historic religions, we see for the first time the idea of the rejection of the world and the phenomenon that Rodney Stark calls "upper-class asceticism."  If the risk is so great then maybe it's best to retreat from the world in meditation or monastery.

Charles Taylor in his Sources of the Self talks a similar line, talking about the old "porous self," vulnerable to powers in the universe, and the new "buffered self" which is safe from spirits and demons.  With the porous self, evil just happens, but with the buffered self it is evil action of the self that entices Satan up from Hell.

There's a piece by Jeffrey Lord today about how liberals hate the middle class.  Exactly.  Liberals hate the responsible ego.  They hate American individualism, because they hate the responsible ego of the Axial Age religions.

But what about liberals?  They experience themselves as caring, compassionate communitarians, but are they?  Not a bit of it.  Let's tell the story of the Egos of the Western World.

The modern age begins with Descartes and his proclamation: "I think, therefore I am."  Let us call this the birth of the Rational Ego.  The 17th century and then the 18th century were full of rational ego heads.

But then what?  Obviously the next Big Thing is Romanticism, the reaction against the Age of Reason. What do we call those ego heads, your Rousseaus, your Herders, your Schillers?  We call them Creative Egos or Expressive Egos.  They are all about the transcendental work of art, the work of genius, the man who towered over the age because of his instinctive intellectual or artistic brilliance.

Next up, obviously, is the post-Napoleonic baby boom that burst upon the world in the 1840s.  Now we see the Revolutionary Ego.  The generation of Marx and Engels, according to Charles Taylor, combined the Rational and Expressive impulse.  The first baby boomers looked at the world and their creative feelings were outraged.  So they went out and built a science that would completely remake society according to their transcendent aesthetic plan.  Check Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott.

In the mid 19th century we also see the emergence of the Business Ego, as the industrial revolution went into overdrive and great railroad and steel corporations emerged from nowhere.  The Business Ego is a combination of the Responsible Ego and the Creative Ego, and that is why liberals hate it so much.  They don't like the Responsible Ego, and they resent the incandescent creativity of the great businessmen, the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, the Fords, the Waltons.  The achievements of the great business titans make liberal achievements seem puny, and they don't like that.  So liberals came up with a great idea:  why not call the great business titans Robber Barons?  No wonder the modern titans, the Gateses and the Buffetts, are careful to kowtow to their liberal masters.

Now we come to the late 19th century and the Progressive Era and its educated ruling class.  Here we see the birth of the Educated Ego, the dynasty of the people that think they have a right to rule ordinary Americans because they are educated.  Never mind that their ideas and their plans have devastated the middle-class culture of the Responsible Ego.

Maybe you think that the age of the great dictators calls for a new kind of ego, the Dictatorial Ego.  But the Dictatorial Ego is merely the final development of the Revolutionary Ego.  Nothing new there.

The next Big Thing is the Sixties.  But what should we say about the generation that tuned in, turned on, and dropped out?  Perfectly simple.  We should recognize the 1960s as the age of the Adolescent Ego.  That's when adolescent behavior reached critical mass and was celebrated by the great and the good.  It involves the Creative Ego but it's all done using Daddy's credit card in Mommie's basement.

Now here's a new idea.  Strictly speaking, the lower class and the underclass ought to be pre-egoic, because they don't experience responsibility for themselves, but only the distant "they" who are responsible for their problems.  But our liberal friends tend to exhibit members of the underclass to us as poster boys and girls for our greed and insensitivity towards human needs.  Once these people have been plucked out of obscurity and exhibited for the 15 minutes of fame, they become egos.  So we should call them Victimized Egos.  They aren't really victims, they just play victims on TV.

What about the environmentalists?  As celebrants of the cult of the Precautionary Principle, we should call them the Precautionary Egos.  They have come up with all kinds of reasons why nobody but themselves can be trusted to do anything.  They have revived the idea of upper-class asceticism and mapped it onto the oppressive regime of educational supervision.  So we have a combination of the Ascetic Ego and the Educated Ego.

Hmm.  That means that the Axial Age produced both the Responsible Ego and the Ascetic Ego.  Because, in my view, the ascetics, chaps like the Buddha, were total ego heads, whatever they said at the time.  If they weren't ego heads, we wouldn't know about them, right?

What about the good guys, the modern conservatives?  Well, the point about us is that we blend carefully and respectfully several ego themes.  We still honor the Responsible Ego, like Mitt Romney.  But we have certainly partaken of the Rational Ego and the Creative Ego in our celebration of modern business.  We are Communitarian Egos in our support for civil society and the mediating structures, the only true expression of community in the modern era that protects ordinary people from the power of the megastructures, big business and big government.  And we are Tolerant Egos.  No particular virtue there, of course.  We have to be tolerant, because we lack the cultural power to order other people around.

And what about President Obama?  How about the Failed Ego?