Friday, 31 January 2014

Santayana and the Via Media

Part of me likes to plunge bald-headed into the works of philosophers, sink, rise, sink and rise with at last some un-mediated understanding of my own but to be truthful with a complex thinker like Santayana who has a lingo of his own a little introductory reading can avoid a striated poll. What can he mean by matter as metaphor? What's an essence anyway? Is it Platonic, Aristotelian or a simple of his own? A quick reading of the entry on him by Matthew Caleb Flamm in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy will prepare you for a smoother reading that still leaves your judgement un-coerced by the heavy hand of an expert. I often find that the I.E.P.will do that. The cynic in me 'suspects' that the Stanford E.P.may be the first and last recourse of the student who is more concerned with academic achievement than reading the text. Am I right or am I right? It's not realistic to read everything and only an unambitious fool would read all of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason as a student. I can't say that reading dented my perplexity in any quantifiable way but it was honest if stupid. I must read it again sometime.

A via media is the book of readings or extracts from the major works. I have a modern libraryThe Philosophy of Santayana ed. Irwin Edman which gives a panoptic view which I got for a mere €4. It has for instance an extract from Reason in Religion - How Religion may be an Embodiment of Reason and straight after it but not Literally True. He means not actually true of course. It may be metaphorically true like Science. George talking dirty.

Now read on.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Per Speculum Vedarum

Mirror 1:

The reflection of a face in a mirror is different from the face, as it imitates the mirror. The face which does not depend on the mirror (for its existence) is also different from its reflection. Similarily, the reflection of the Self in the ego is also regarded (as different from the pure Self) like that of the face which is different from the face. The pure Self is considered to be different (from its reflection) like the face (which is different from its own). In fact, however, the Self and Its reflection are free from (real) distinction (between each other like the face and its reflection)
(from Upadesa Sahasri - A Thousand Teachings by Shankara)

Mirror 2:

But consider the case of an original object and its reflection in a mirror. We do not regard it as a contradiction that, although the original and its mirror-image are one, the smudges and other characteristics deriving from the mirror which we attribute to the image are not found in the original, and it is free from them. Even so, although the Absolute and the individual soul are identical, there is no contradiction in regarding the Absolute as omniscient and the individual soul as the seat of Ignorance …..
(From The Method of the Vedanta (pg.767) by Swami Satchidanandendra)


If you are a monist it is easy to go from saying ‘it’s like a mirror’ to ‘it’s a mirror’. In the one view everything is demarcated but not without boundary disputes, in the other really it’s all one, everything is everything else - somehow. In the spirit of such general solubility and following the rule of John Thresher:
Mix the three, strain and throw away the sediment.(Adventures of Harry Richmond by George Meredith)
I offer the anfratuose etymology of wit through to wis, wot and wise to 'videre’ to veda. We see in a glass darkly but say Shankara and Satchidanandendra that does not affect the objects. They are not altered by imperfections in the glass. Those reflections in the mirror of the mind are merely the subtle form of the objects which are themselves forms of limitation of the absolute.

I have prepared my peace
With learned Italian things
And the proud stones of Greece,
Poet's imaginings
And memories of love,
Memories of the words of women,
All those things whereof
Man makes a superhuman,
Mirror-resembling dream.
(from The Tower by W.B. Yeats)

Reflecting as such is not altered by the medium of an imperfect mirror; pure consciousness is not changed in its immutability by fleeting personal states. There is a real relation between the objects and their reflections. The mutable reflections are real as reflections of real objects just as Creation is real as a manifestation of the Absolute. This is different from saying that creation is an illusion. It is real but not as a ‘free-standing’ reality in its own right.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Tantra, Yantra, Mantra.

I used an expression in my previous post, 'noetic map', an ungainly locution I freely admit and without excusing it let me plead for its retention. It has some flavour of 'mind maps' those doodles which Tony Buzan writes about,
mind maps
that have both a mnemonic and inspiriting effect. There is also in it, but expanded to a lifetime, the Memory Theatre of Giulio Camillo. Frances Yates in her The Art of Memory has written about it. (cf. Yates)
If your soul is your way of living the world then there are events, pictures, poems, memories, books that point like finger-posts towards areas in one's soul. Using Bergson's image of the inverted cone (cf:memory cone) that area is a conic section as it were.

By Tantra, Yantra and Mantra states of consciousness are accessed and goals are attained. According to the Saundarya Lahiri even the fascination of women can be achieved without the use of expensive unguents and aftershave. It requires a gold or lead plate with Yantra (mystic diagram) and bijas inscribed to be worn and to be worshipped for 6 days with 1000 repetitions of stanza p.d.and an offering of tri-madhura or cooked rice. The stanza is a Bollywood dance routine:

Damsels in hundreds, with their locks dishevelled, their saris flying off their figures, their girdles bursting asunder with force, their silk garments slipping down, run after a decrepit, ugly and impotent man who falls within the range of Thy (Devi) side-glances.

The use of visualisation is well developed in Buddhist and Hindu iconography but there are also the standard literary tropes such as the mirror and all its elements which are used in the explication of cosmology in Tantra and Vedanta. In both the Tripura Rahasya an ancient Sanskrit work and Upadesa Sahasri by Shankara the 'mirror' as metaphor is used extensively. That must be the subject of another post.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

The Last Gita

Bhagavad Gita: 14:

The Last Puritan must have taken root in me and become part of my noetic map because I have been thinking about it especially in relation to the Bhagavad Gita. No doubt Alden Père and his interest in Oriental objets d’art has suggested this. It is easy to think of Oliver as the naturally occurring sattvic type, pure, detached, kind and given to lofty thoughts. Mario is a rajasic individual, sensual, pleasure loving, active with an aesthetic side that ameliorates his natural egotism. Jim is also one in whom the rajasic guna predominates but with a firm warrior-like cast. He uses people and marshals them to his advantage and has missed his natural role as an officer in the Navy.

Both Jim and Mario are of the world and happy in it; they know what they want, but Peter is at the end of the book foundering. In that type of natural sattva when the elasticity of youth is past a judgemental rigidity can predominate and chill their detachment. It is a type that needs to be broken and we see as a sign his invincible health crumbling. Death comes as a resolution and in the Gita’s view an epilogue followed by a new prologue, possibly a birth in a Brahmin family but not of the Boston sort.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Jesting Pilate was a philosopher

As a starry-eyed perennialist I have never been troubled by the variety of religions all claiming to be true. I have a way of bracketing that 'true' and I'll tell you about it sometime but it's a strange thing that philosophers who draw a bead on this variety as indicating general dubiousness may themselves espouse a philosophy which others in the trade regard as obviously false. Sorry, make that a muddle. It does seem to be impossible to decide between different systems because the ways of deciding are themselves in contention. It's not just the concept of truth, but the very definition of what a concept is. And so on and so forth and on the other hand I suspect.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Poetry and Philosophy

Siris has an interesting quote from the philosopher John Watson (from The Interpretation of Religious Experience):

The poetic intuitions of Wordsworth and Browning, of Goethe and Schiller, contain larger and deeper truth than is to be found in the systems of contemporary theologians or philosophers; but the reason is, not that imagination comes closer to reality than reflection, but that it naturally outruns its slower-paced sister. Poetry never contains deeper truth than philosophy, except when it embodies intuitions that are afterwards expressed, or may afterwards be expressed, in systematic form. In poetry we have the concrete presentation of ideas in definite pictorial form, but it is only as it exhibits the whole through the parts, the ideal in the sensible, that it can ever be regarded as reaching a higher stage than a philosophy which has lost itself in the parts.

John Watson, The Interpretation of Religious Experience, Part 2,
(It’s available in various eformats on Internet Archive.)

It is a fact that early philosophy was often written in verse then considered to be the most suitable vehicle for wisdom combining compression and memorability in a way which would enter deep into the mind. The etymology of ‘poetry’ as given by C.T. Onions is from the Greek ‘poein’ to make, to create and is related to the Sanskrit ‘cinoti, edyate - to heap up, construct. One thinks of the ajativada (unmade) theory of the cosmos espoused by the grandguru of Sankaracarya, Gaudapada. Sankaracarya’s Upadesa Sahasri (Thousand Teachings) is mostly written in verse. So with poetry we make a world or what amounts to the same thing make our souls. Socarates in the few days grace given to him before his execution on account of a festival took to writing poetry.

Philosophy in prose form too makes a world, offers a vision. We give it a temporary licence.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Moore of Corunna

The Burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna

Not a drum was heard, nor a funeral note,
As his corse to the rampart we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
O'er the grave where our hero we buried.

We buried him darkly at dead of night,
The sods with our bayonets turning;
By the struggling moonbeam's misty light
And the lantern dimly burning.

No useless coffin enclosed his breast,
Nor in sheet nor in shroud we wound him;
But he lay like a warrior taking his rest
With his martial cloak around him.

Few and short were the prayers we said,
And we spoke not a word of sorrow;
But we steadfastly gazed on the face that was dead,
And we bitterly thought of the morrow.

We thought, as we hollowed his narrow bed
And smoothed down his lonely pillow,
That the foe and the stranger would tread o'er his head,
And we far away on the billow!

Lightly they'll talk of the spirit that's gone
And o'er his cold ashes upbraid him,--
But little he'll reck, if they let him sleep on
In the grave where a Briton has laid him.

But half of our heavy task was done
When the clock struck the hour for retiring:
And we heard the distant and random gun
That the foe was sullenly firing.

Slowly and sadly we laid him down,
From the field of his fame fresh and gory;
We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone,
But left him alone with his glory.

Charles Wolfe

Wikipedia Article:
Moore of Corunna

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Last Puritan by George Santayana

Novels written by philosophers tend to have a dialectical play between the characters who represent types not individuals. This is a factor in The Last Puritan but the types are incarnated in realistic portraits that surpass the simplistic Freudian or Jungian photofits. One would have to go to Enneagram personality types to find the complexity that Santayana gives to his creations. They have, in the jargon, wings or tendencies that lead them away from their dominant being in the world. An interesting thing is that after the death of Oliver we see Mario his friend in a different light which shows us that the view we had of him was filtered through the soul of the dead protagonist. Mario seems reduced, more worldly and less glamorous than in the body of the book. This is a subtle unstated delineation, deictic if you like.

The text and I mean text with the true scholastic whiff, is the pucca one put out by the M.I.T. with an introduction by Irving Singer, a preface by Santayana and notes with the original dollar price of 34.95 in paperback (trade edition). I got it for €10. Very nice paper. The notes tell us who Conrad was and Schopenhauer and where the Left Bank is, in Paris France, what chez ma mere means.

It is 574 pages long and for a protagonist who only lives to be 29 and whose death rounds out the book this may seem excessive but in fact it has distinct sections that smoothly dovetail together and mitigate the tedium of formless narrative that is the hazard of the long book. It has a Preface, A Prologue and 5 parts, Ancestry, Boyhood, First Pilgrimage, In the Home Orbit, Last Pilgrimage and Epilogue. As anyone who has read his philosophy will know Santayana is a superb prose stylist but the curious thing is that in The Last Puritan he exchanges his sometimes over ornate diction for simplicity and clarity. Even though the Preface is by Santayana it's an author's guide and general remarks and not part of the novel so it could be left out. No it's not a post-modern layering of perspectives and bringing the author into the fiction so for a gauzeless view of the drama I would leave it out. It would be easy to disagree with his characterisation of Oliver so perhaps there is mischief in his ruminations or the opacity of the fiction to its creator. He after all lived with it for 45 years which is a long time to be gravid, long enough to forget the impulse of its conception. Because Santayana was an aesthetic Catholic his stem of religion amounts to dim religious light, Gothic Cathedrals and the Eternal City. Comparing Oliver to Christ is fatuous mischief but part of the fun is that Santayana as he is in the novel is an unreliable explainer. Clearly he has much more artifice than the average philosopher.

So then what is the genesis of the idea that Oliver is a Puritan born out of his time without the structure of religion to give meaning to an ascetic personality? Is it in the Beacon Street beginnings of his father sharing the house with his half-brother Natthaniel who is also his guardian. Their father who amassed all the wealth through exaction of rents from the poor was murdered by one of them reacting to a threat of eviction.

That his father had always been a hard landlord and a miser, grown rich on uncertain and miserable payments wrung from the poor. That ultimate outburst of wrath, that one hand raised to smite, had been only a symbol, the fatal overflow, as it were, of all the silent curses and sullen bitternesses gathering for years above his head. And the worst of it was, for Nathaniel, that those roots of wrong and vengeance had not been extirpated. He himself was still drawing from them the sap of his own character and position. Yet he couldn't help it: he couldn't abandon his trust and his responsibilities. Unless all his fortune was to be dissipated, tenants must occasionally be evicted and mortgages foreclosed. How horrible that in fulfilling as he must the evident duties of his station, he should never be at ease in his conscience! A scar of horror, if not of guilt, lay consciously on his breast, like the scarlet letter.

This last sentence places the moral geography in the New England of rapacious piety and the duty of putting the widow's mite to good use. Not that Nathaniel shares the faith. The family pew is in the Unitarian chapel:

The music was classical and soothing, the service High Church Unitarian, with nothing in it either to discourage a believer or to annoy an unbeliever. What did doctrines matter ? The lessons were chosen for their magical archaic English and were mouthed in a tone of emotional mystery and unction.

It would be all too easy to scarify Nathaniel but Santayana does a Dickensian turn and shows us his penchant for collecting paintings in exquisite bad taste. It was a public duty, he declared, for those who could afford it to encourage art in a new country.

Peter who is living with him is still going to school and when Nathaniel gets the feeling that the boy is going off the rails when a common tram conductor addresses him familiarly and seems to know him, drastic action is taken. The conference with the three trustees about the boy has the true Dickensian touch of high moralising put to work on trivia.

This is a long rich book and Oliver isn't even born yet. Peter his father feeling the need for the scientific version of emollient waffle that his brother finds in chapel takes to being an occasional boarder at the home of alienist Dr. Bumstead. He manages to marry off his Junoesque daughter Harriet to Peter Alden who is extremely wealthy, the money from the elder Alden has come to him and he now feels like settling down after more than a decade of cruising the world and desultory study which got him a basic M.D. which although he never practices is useful for the self prescription of B.P. dope. This is an unusual theme for the time of publication but Santayana must have been thinking of the cocaine blizzard amongst docs in the 1890's . Thank you Dr. Freud.

By 1890 Oliver the son is born and his early childhood rearing shows Santayana at his most observant. When a German girl is recruited to look after him; Harriet is a hands off mother, the poor boy at last finds some warmth and affection.

One day, without any reason, he climbed up from her knee and put both her arms round her neck, holding on very softly and very tight for what seemed to her a long time.
“But darling,” she said, smothering her emotions, “why do you do that?”
His German, and even his English, was inadequate to frame an answer, and he merely held on.
'But do you ever hug your mother like that? And of course it would be very wrong not to lover her ever so much more than you love me, because she is your mother.”

Incidents like this and an absent father seem to this reader to account more for the genesis of the aloof intelligence of Oliver Alden who finds himself attracted by expressive persons such as Jim Darnley and Mario Van de Weyer his cousin. They supply the elements that are missing. The authorial leading suggesting vestigial throwback to earlier types is more the sketch of an historical conditioning that over-determines.

Oliver could not be so easily comforted, and he needed comfort. He could find no peace unless he justified his natural sympathies theoretically and turned them into moral maxims. If they couldn't bear the light of day, the test of being made explicit in word, he wouldn't allow them to govern him in the dark.

How that works for him is the heart of a novel that is the American analogue of Mann's Magic Mountain .

Monday, 13 January 2014

The Late George Apley by John P. Marquand

I thank Zhiv for mentioning The Late George Apley by John P. Marquand. (published 1937)


It won the Pulitzer Prise in 1938. The book has a subtitle A novel in the Form of a Memoir which is interesting as the surprise best seller first published in 1935 ,The Last Puritan by George Santayana is subtitled A Memoir in the Form of a Novel. Marquand was not an absolute stickler for originality as his better known Mr. Moto series is shadowed by other wily and inscrutable orientals such as Charley Chan and Fu Manchu. More on the Santayana book later. Beacon Street and the bluenoses of Boston come into both and if that weren't enough the biography of Alice James by Janet Strouse is also on the stocks. Alice and the James Boys, More Boston and more Calvinism.

In both novels the swarming Irish are feared and from the redoubts of Beacon Street the machinations of cute hoor politicians are viewed with disdain. George Apley runs foul of Reilly in a very amusing sting in which he is lured to a 'hotel' by a man purporting to have important information in relation to police corruption.

I was dull enough to accept his invitation. Saying that he would be back in a moment, he closed the door behind me, permitting me to find myself in a shoddily furnished apartment and to discover that the man whom I was seeking was not there. Instead I found myself racing a woman whom I had never seen before, quite patently in negligee. Before I even had the opportunity to excuse my presence and to say that there must be some mistake there was a thundering knock on the door. Before I was allowed time to answer this summons the door was broken open. I had not realized that it was secured by a spring lock. Two men appeared, with police badges, who refused cynically, almost rudely, to accept my natural explanation. This is my honest version of an affair which may be believed or disbelieved by anyone who knows me.

Apley navigates the dangerous shoals of irony and pathos with a deft touch. George will not admit to being hammered by Reilly and with a sort of demented unworldly innocence determines to have his day in court and deny the charges laid against him. My reading between the lines is that although no one actually believes that George was consorting with a prostitute he would be made a holy show of and the utter laughing stock of his peers. O'Reilly's stroke would backfire particularly in an election year. It was in everybody's interest to get Apley to drop his case or righteousness would sink them all. Then it is discovered that Mary O'Reilly the wife of Reilly's cousin is the old lost love of George's. The fix is in. Within the rubric of his pinched decency, Mary, Monahan as she was, is one of George's people and therefore cannot be harmed:

One must be loyal to one's people and I know now that she has been one of my own people always. When she told me that the man O'Reilly was her husband's cousin this was enough. I cannot and 1 shall not raise my hand against anything which belongs to her. Though I do not agree with her point of view I can sympathize with it, because it is based on family. She has a position quite apart from ours but none the less important. She is connected by family with many of our officials. I believe after this talk that something may be arranged.
When I told Catharine about this, when she tapped on the library door at the end of an hour and a half, Catharine's pleasure in itself was a reward. Those two, although I could not have believed it, were sisters under the skin, little as I have ever liked the expression and little as I approve of Kipling's jingles. 1 shall never forget the light in Catharine's eyes when she took her hand with most unusual impulsiveness and said: "I am so glad that you are looking after George. He needs it sometimes, doesn't he?" I did not try to disabuse her of her error. Catharine would never understand that i was looking after memory.

The irony in this excellent book is further layered by having the narration in the hands of Will Willing a contemporary of Apley's who does not wish to write about the sensitive aspects but whose hand is forced by John Apley the son who represents the new but still tradition bound generation. Or should I say wife-bound. John's is from a 'good' family and she persuades him to come back to Boston to take up residence in the old mansion. Plus ça change.
Available in ebook formats on Internet Archive:
The Late George Apley

Monday, 6 January 2014

Here comes Hume, hopping.

Who is that fellow with reflective mien gently tapping his forehead ? Why it is Hume attempting to stimulate an idea by means of a faint sensation. Miracles are false because their truth is less likely than their falsity. Elsewhere induction is regarded as a useful prejudice. An empiricism that is based on idealism requires epistemological hopping as the ground is constantly being cut from underneath one. On to the next bundle of perceptions Davey lad. Memory won’t save you.

And yet you can be a great philosopher and be wrong about everything. I’m not sure if that’s true but it could be. Discuss. I’m probably exactly backwards and belong to that scheduled caste of scoffers and doubters who must be gently raised into the light of a true understanding of greatness.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Peter Geach on Abstractionism

Geach in his Mental Acts impugns the Lockean theory of concept formation which he calls abstractionism. To clarify his position vis a vis the Thomist view of abstraction he added an appendix:

SOME PEOPLE may have been a good deal surprised at my using arguments adapted from Aquinas to refute abstractionism. Aquinas is very often regarded as an abstractionist, and many of his professed followers are abstractionists; and of course he does use the term "abstractio" for the process of forming concepts. All the same it can be decisively shown that in his maturest work, the Summa Theologica, his views are opposed to what I have called abstractionism.
In accepting the comparison whereby the intellectus agens, the mind's concept-forming power, is likened to a light that enables the mind's eye to see the intelligible features of things, as the bodily eye sees colours, Aquinas is careful to add that this comparison goes on all fours only if we suppose that colours are generated by kindling the light—that the light is not just revealing colours that already existed in the dark (la q. 79 art. 3 ad 2 um). Furthermore he says that when we frame a judgment expressed in words, our use of concepts is to be compared, not to seeing something, but rather to forming a visual image of something we are not now seeing, or even never have seen (la q. 85 art. 2 ad 8 um). So he expresses anti-abstractionist views both on the formation and on the exercise of concepts.
Again, an abstractionist, as we say, cannot allow that we possess 'proper' concepts of the various kinds of material substance in our environment, and it is arguable that he ought to reject the term "substance" as nonsensical. But it is a main thesis in Aquinas's theory of knowledge that what our understanding grasps primarily and most readily is the specific nature (quod quid est) of material substances, in spite of his also holding that the senses are in no way cognizant of this nature. In fact, he greatly exaggerates the ease and certainty of this knowledge; as when he says that the term "stone" signifies the nature of stone as it is in itself, since it expresses the definition of stone, by which we know what stone is (la q. 13 art. 8 ad 2 um). His soi-disant followers who adopt abstractionism have been obliged to reject his epistemology on this cardinal point; how they can think that this departure is not fundamental I have never understood.

I suppose it is the result of the empiricist tendency to believe that if we have got something e.g. a concept, it must be the result of our working on something in order to extract it.

Ed.Feser has a post on concept formation and its implications for materialist theories of the mind. sphexy