Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Pelle the Conqueror by Martin Andersen Nexo

Was it not writing about the blacking factory that made Dickens the writer that he was? We are given those elaborate fictions, avoidances and detours and most of all Mother who had left him there pasting labels with low boys being shamed by true devoted women in the novels. If he had written The Blacking Factory would there have been other novels left in him? There is healing in pure fabulism and an adoring public is a sovereign emollient. It might be claimed that Martin Andersen Nexø writer of Pelle the Conqueror is a counter example of how truth telling, of the realist sort in which there was only one way the world was, may leave one with but one story to tell.
This is quite false because it is based on the illusion that there is one way that the world is when the real truth is that there is 'more in the mind than before the mind' (Bradley) and the 'unrestricted desire to know' (Lonergan) what that residue is gives us the impetus to tell stories. Finding the truth is an extension of telling the truth. We can start from where we are with the clew of native truth in our hands.

Martin Andersen Nexø in 'Pelle' starts there writing about what he knows, the island of Bornholm in the Baltic where Swedish farm labourers came in search of work hiring themselves out for a season or more to large farmers. The wages there were much better than in Sweden. He deals in his memoir Under the Open Sky with his Bornholm days. It is available on Internet Archive:
under the open sky
I read 'Pelle' on the recommendation of Tom the Amatuer Reader at 'Wuthering Expectations':
incomporable joys
He's right about the general optimistic tone, the clue is in 'conqueror' and though I was probably reading the earlier translation by Jesse Muir got from Gutenberg it was quite readable. This is the sort of book that brings one back to a totally different era and here the famous movie of the same name is useful in giving a sense of the locale and set up of the farm and the yard with the cow shed where Pelle and his father Lasse worked. It was full of feeling and love between the father and son but not sentimental. A feature of the story was the superstition of the peasants who interpreted events as karmic balancing. A farm hand denies being the father of a girl's child before the magistrates swearing with three fingers on the bible. Those fingers will become infected if he lies. All the other farm workers know him to be a liar but he get away with not having to support his child. Working at the chaff mill where Pelle drives the ox that turns the grinder this man is feeding it. No harm comes to him but when another man takes a turn his fingers get caught in the machine and have to be amputated. It 's the wrong man but the same fingers which is interpreted to mean that the account is cleared. There are several other incidents like this and Pelle has charge of a field in which there is a cairn under which he believes that an infant that was drowned at birth is buried and over which he sees a light shining representing the trapped spirit of the child.

Reading all this I was reminded of the story of Michael Kierkegaard a lonely shepherd boy on the heath who cursed God for visiting such misery on him. The curse that rebounded he believed to be the death of his children who would outlive him. Four of them did die and Soren took the overwhelming demand of the presence of God seriously and in his sophisticated way kept to the balancing of the cosmic book as the peasants in 'Pelle' did.

Martin Andersen Nexo turned Communist later and ended his long life in Dresden. I may go on to read more of the Pelle books, there are four and chance the improving ideology.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Narrowing the Issues with A.E. Taylor

Suspense and philosophy are not usually twinned, in general, we, like the PP’s advice on sermons to his curate, are told what we going to be told, we are told it and then in a magisterial summing up are told what we have just been told. Taylor in Elements of Metaphysics is open about his idealism but what sort is it? His criticism of its chief proponents such as Kant and Berkeley are cogent and the latters invulnerability according to Hume which to me has always seemed overstated is controverted effectively.

He writes:

When we say that a thing " is " or " has Being," we seem primarily to mean that it is an object for the knowing consciousness, that it has its place in the system of objects which coherent thought recognises. When we call the same object "real" or a " reality," we lay the emphasis rather on the consideration that it is something of which we categorically must take account, whether we like it or not, if some purpose of our own is to get its fulfilment.

Is this his own thought on the matter or must we wait as he says himself for ‘the narrowing of the issues’? Something like it seems to be as further down he rejects the example of the unknown yet existing:

We may pass from the case of the mental life of a fellow-man to the case of unperceived physical reality. A recent realist philosopher, Mr. L. T. Hobhouse, has brought forward as a clear instance of an independent physical reality, the case of a railway train just emerging from a tunnel. I do not perceive the train, he says, until it issues from the tunnel, but it was just as real while it was running through the tunnel. Its reality is therefore independent of the question whether it is perceived or not. But, in the first place, the argument requires that the train shall be empty; it must be a runaway train without driver, guard, or passengers, if the conditions presumed in the premisses are to be fulfilled. And, in the second place, we may retort that even an empty runaway train must have been despatched from somewhere by somebody. It must stand in some relation to the general scheme of purposes and interests expressed in our system of railway traffic, and it is precisely this connection, with a scheme of purposes and interests, which makes the runaway train a reality and not a mere fiction of an ingenious philosopher's imagination.

How different this is from the Vedantin’s ‘unknown object’ i.e. the capacity to be an unknown object is just what makes an object a reality. It may be that as a Monist Idealist Taylor holds that the system as a whole is one and ‘minded’ and that reality is self-creative consciousness. Or something. We are living in a cosmic neighborhood alert scheme. Everything is minding the others business. Or something. The current is picking up, a narrowing of the issues is approaching but theres a sense of ‘keep calm and carry on’. It’s a remarkable production for a 34 year old man.


Tuesday, 22 April 2014

A Family and a Fortune by Ivy Compton-Burnett

The envy of Virginia Woolf is always a good indication of quality. Ivy Compton-Burnett gave her many a sleepless night during which she composed elaborate disparagement. She did the same for Arnold Bennett and James Joyce and anyone who came within her range I imagine. A Family and a Fortune was published in 1939 and the Penguin edition of 1962 I found has the excellent Robin Jacques drawing of a group in Edwardian clothes. Any drawing representing the characters of an Ivy Compton-Burnett would be interchangeable. The scene is generally a country house, a large family, relations and comedic servants who are imperfectly acquainted with their place. The language is on a higher nobler plane and as her books are largely dialogue, conversation seems too low a term for the lofty and withal venomous speech of the dramatic personae. There are three brothers and a daughter. One of them,Clement,brings in the donnish element of precision. He is to be a scholar at Oxford. There is Mark the eldest son who is to take over the running of the estate in due course from his father Edgar. The mother is Blanche, by name and nature washed out, and the daughter Justine as the eldest at 30 is given to the mot juste and summations both high toned and judiciously recriminatory. Aubrey the youngest lad about 12 is at home privately tutored with the intimation that his oddness forbids normal schooling.

Does that seem familiar? Manservant and Maidservant which I previously wrote about here has the same lineup virtually with the one difference of a brother Dudley for Edgar instead of a first cousin. His standing in the house and place in the action is similar, a professionless dependent and a steady beacon of righteousness. Are we sitting comfortably? The fortune in the title is what comes to this Dudley and is the cause of several perturbations on the genteel Richter Scale of this country house which can be shook to its foundations without getting past 1.

The other element of upset is Aunt Matty who comes to live in the gate lodge. She is a marvellous character that is credible as a remote cause of world war. Sometimes irrealism is more than real. She is Blanche’s elder sister and her companion Miss Griffin is a sympathetic portrait of the put upon and undervalued. Their elderly father Oliver is also living in the lodge. The era is Edwardian as if era entered into the classic family dramas that Ivy Compton-Burnett (pronounced ‘cumpton burnit’) issued regularly. Classic is the correct term for these works of genius which surely must come to be republished in this era of factious if not specious prizes that oddly fit a demographic that is unmined.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Lane Discipline

I like to read the Crooked Timber blog because I like to know what right thinking people are thinking just in case that I might inadvertently fall into error. Lately John Holbo has
been what my dear mother called ‘ag plubstarail’ (making plopping sounds). Yes, it’s about lane discipline. If you’re going to turn to the right side of history you need to be in the correct lane. Conor F. ( Atlantic)
may be hemmed in by two station wagons full of Catholics, his relations, and thinking that although he disagrees with them on all counts on the S.S.M. question some of them at least may be genuine and ought not to be pers, sorry prosecuted for declining to take photos, bake cakes etc. for gay weddings. Conor wants to win graciously. Holbo on the other hand has so nuanced a position that I found it unclear. Basically, opposition to SSM is like racist bigotry but there are different sorts of racism, hard and soft. All very interesting but ‘very like a whale’.

Here in Ireland we like to keep it simple and stupid: all opposition is homophobia and it’s like the Magdalen Laundries over again.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Christian Era and Before the Christian Era

What do you think of this C.E. and B.C.E. in scholarly usage? My title refers to what one Indian on a list thought it meant and that is a fair indication that you can't get away from the general truth that the associated number has its roots in a claim. That does not mean that we have to accept that claim or that using it is an implicit acceptance. I can understand that the Anno Hejirae or the Anno Mundi of the Orthodox Jew could be dear to their people and incorporate a sense of a new departure but as a purely secular form of annotation whatever its roots, A.D.and B.C.have won out. Why retrofit our sensitivities. Let us do tonglen on our prior Eurocentrism, forgive it in ourselves and like time move on.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Taylored Wittgenstein

Of course, it might be said, whatever game you choose to play at, the rules of that particular game must be your supreme reality, so long as you are engaged in it. But it depends on your own choice what game you will play and how long you will keep at it. There is no game at which we all, irrespective of personal choice, have to play, and there is therefore no such thing as an ultimate reality which we must all recognise as such; there are only the special realities which correspond to our special individual purposes. You have no right to set up the particular rules of the game of scientific thought as a reality unconditionally
demanding recognition from those who do not choose to play that particular game.
from Elements of Metaphysics by A.E. Taylor

'This game is played'

Sunday, 13 April 2014

In the Body Experience on The Path to Rome by Hilaire Belloc.

Hilaire Belloc in football parlance was carrying a ‘bit of a leg’, the knee part, his pack was heavy but he was pressing on hoping to be in Switzerland by night. The quart of wine that he was carrying with him he was about to be disemburdened of, helas. Those events where you look and look at the broken glass and say ‘Oh No’, I carried you and I was saving you’. He tells us that he found better wine there. Starting at Toul he was averaging 30 statute miles a day, a modest amble for the man who held the student record for walking from Marble Arch (London) to Carfax (Oxford) in 11hours 30 minutes. Find The Path to Rome on Gutenberg:Path

I wished, as I had often wished in such opportunities of recollection and of silence, for a complete barrier that might isolate the mind. With that wish came in a puzzling thought, very proper to a pilgrimage, which was: 'What do men mean by the desire to be dissolved and to enjoy the spirit free and without attachments?' That many men have so desired there can be no doubt, and the best men, whose holiness one recognizes at once, tell us that the joys of the soul are incomparably higher than those of the living man. In India, moreover, there are great numbers of men who do the most fantastic things with the object of thus unprisoning the soul, and Milton talks of the same thing with evident conviction, and the Saints all praise it in chorus. But what is it? For my part I cannot understand so much as the meaning of the words, for every pleasure I know comes from an intimate union between my body and my very human mind, which last receives, confirms, revives, and can summon up again what my body has experienced. Of pleasures, however, in which my senses have had no part I know nothing, so I have determined to take them upon trust and see whether they could make the matter clearer in Rome.

But when it comes to the immortal mind, the good spirit in me that is so cunning at forms and colours and the reasons of things, that is a very different story. That, I do indeed desire to have to myself at whiles, and the waning light of a day or the curtains of autumn closing in the year are often to me like a door shutting after one, as one comes in home. For I find that with less and less impression from without the mind seems to take on a power of creation, and by some mystery it can project songs and landscapes and faces much more desirable than the music or the shapes one really hears and sees. So also memory can create. But it is not the soul that does this, for the songs, the landscapes, and the faces are of a kind that have come in by the senses, nor have I ever understood what could be higher than these pleasures, nor indeed how in anything formless and immaterial there could be pleasure at all. Yet the wisest people assure us that our souls are as superior to our minds as are our minds to our inert and merely material bodies. I cannot understand it at all.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Bhagavad Gita and Satkaryavada

B.G. 2:16:
Of the unreal there is no being; the real has no nonexistence. But the nature of both of these, indeed, has been realized by the seers of Truth.

Here Krishna is expressing the Samkhya doctrine of satkaryavada and it is a central element in the in the ontology of the Gita. It is also expressed as the non-difference of cause and effect. It is not a syncretic strain to see it as very like the thought of Parmenides : cf.

also satkaryavada

In the Gita the satkaryavada thesis is used to subvert the feeling of aham karta (I am the doer). We act thinking we are achieving our goals when in fact the goals are already there as potency. This is expressed as the non-difference of cause and effect. What is already there emerges. If it was not there it could have no traction on reality in order to emerge; a vertiginous theory that leaves the actor falling into an abyss of non-being.

This certainly seems like determinism and that is a defensible interpretation looked at solely from a cosmic perspective. It could also be viewed as the general context or background against which agential libertarian activity takes place. Everything arises out of causes and conditions and in retrospect we can give a causal account, prospectively we have options. Freedom isn't free, it's a duck rabbit kind of thing.

There is also the doctrine from the Upanishads, particularly the Chandogya Up,that Brahman is the material cause of the universe. The classic analogy of material identity, clay and vessels of clay and the claim that their fundamental reality is just clay. Only name and form changes. I can see where this is useful as an analogy but when it is proposed as an ontology with the claim that cups and pots are unreal and only the clay is real then I think that there is a confusion of different levels of discourse. There are cups made of clay and there are plates of clay. At the level of material reality they are just as real as clay itself. The real/unreal ontological discussion is about the general absorption into a higher unchanging reality of the material. An interim holding position is sometimes taken as final. My sense of the Indian tradition is that they give you just as much of the truth as you can handle until you are ready for an update. Because the teaching template is a guru/sisha one the confusion created in the mind of the simple occidental by contrary messages is not a factor. The groves of the academy are still the groves of the Academy with plato and aristotle delivering their evolved thought to everyone at the same time.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

The Free by Willy Vlautin

The worst of fame is that it insulates you from criticism, nothing fails like success.. Editors are after all only Eng.Lit. majors and by definition inept, addled by theory flaneurs whose job it is to keep the gravy flowing. Nobody said to Vlautin ‘the dream sequence is detachable, anything detachable falls off in the end; please streamline. My gude wife who is an English and Philosophy major, what conversazione, said as much- no theory in her time. She skipped and in a short novel you should not be skipping any more than in a short story. It’s sociological as well with a lot of informational dialogue which he normally does well but here seems laden with 'previously’. The Free as in ‘The Land of’, is not going to be a good news story, America as a dystopian present as charming as nail fungus. Safety nets tend to be large mesh. Freddie ‘two job man’ and Nurse Pauline caregiving and not getting much are the poles of this story. Leroy the brain damaged Iraq vet in a coma from a suicide attempt is the link between them. Freddie is the caretaker and night watch at the home where Leroy was resident. By day he works at the paint store, his house which once was paid for is now double mortgaged to pay the medical bills for his daughter who lives with his wife. There are no intact marriages, nobody eats health food, late model cars are a rumour, are there any donuts left?

Look, it’s still better than Donna Tart. Maybe he should give up the band and work at the day job.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Nishkama Karma (desireless action) and Nishkarma Karma (actionless action) In the Bhagavad Gita

Looking at this lecture
On Karma
by Professor Chris Framarin on the Bhagavad Gita I heard him mention that he demurred from the position on habits and dispositions which was the dominant one espoused by such luminaries as Professors Potter and Perrett. That seemed interesting although in an introductory lecture he could not go into it in any great detail. When I read the chapter on this very topic in Hindu Ethics by Roy Perrett I have to say that I agree.

Nishkama karma is translated as desireless action or action without being attached to its fruits. For some strange reason or I perhaps heard it wrong this sounded to me like nishkarma karma or 'actionless action'. Theres's a sense in which this is true. If desire for the fruits of the action is its mainspring, or what drives it or what is its chief mark then the absence of desire fundamentally alters it. Metaphysically speaking we are no longer captive in time. T.S. Eliot in his Four Quartets refers to this feature of action in Section III of The Dry Salvages:

Here between the hither and the farther shore
While time is withdrawn, consider the future
And the past with an equal mind.
At the moment which is not of action or inaction
You can receive this: 'on whatever sphere of being
The mind of a man may be intent
At the time of death' - that is the one action
(And the time of death is every moment)
Which shall fructify in the lives of others:
And do not think of the fruit of action.
Fare forward.
O voyagers, O seamen,
You who came to port, and you whose bodies
Will suffer the trial and judgement of the sea,
Or whatever event, this is your real destination."
So Krishna, as when he admonished Arjuna
On the field of battle.
Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.

Consider a clock whose mainspring is broken or removed. It's not even right twice a day because it isn't working and therefore not telling the time. It has 'clockness' without being a clock. Karma is a clockwork concept but without the 'mainspring' of desire it is 'nishkarma karma'.

Where Perrett goes astray is his narrow understanding of freedom in action as being linked to spontaneous response rather than habitual reaction. The cultivation of sattvic routines is the foundation of immediate morally sound reactions. It is arguable that the good man demonstrates his connaturality with the good by doing it without taking thought. He has freely conditioned his actions by training and attention to duty.

Perrett writes:
A response, in this sense, involves an agent directly encountering a situation in a non-­stereotyped way, taking account of the full variety of features present and selecting appropriately from a large range of non­-stereotyped actions. Notwithstanding the undeniable utility which accrues to acquiring at least some reaction repertoires, a response instances a special kind of value that a reaction does not. Many of us, I suggest, would prefer our lives to be lives of response, rather than of reaction, and we are well aware how much our dependence on our habits hinders our achieving this goal.
Gita on Karma
It is perfectly intelligible to claim that a man or woman who have schooled themselves in courage in many different situations over a long period of time will do the courageous thing when it required of them. What they do spontaneously is built on that foundation.

The other point on which Perrett is mistaken is the characterisation of the ontology of the Gita as being a self/body dualism. My previous remarks on the jnana marga in Karma and the Gunas karma are centred on an understanding that is within the advaitic tradition. A self/body dualism is predicated on a Cartesian view. There are different emphases in the orthodox tradition but generally the mind is inert or more precisely the physical complex which is individual when pervaded by pure consciousness gives rise to an individual mind. I am using a distemper brush here.

There is an interesting discussion of first order and second order desires but really when the food is burnt nouvelle cuisine dribbles of jus won't rescue it.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Ludwig Wittgenstein and A.E. Taylor

Wittgenstein did not it seems read much philosophy but reading the classic work by A.E. Taylor, Elements of Metaphysics (1903) I was struck by the uncanny similarity between their statements on the difficulty of metaphysics which leads me to think that this at least was one book that Wittgenstein read. He could have done worse. It is also a matter of record that he approved of the distinction between being a clever man and being a good philosopher. Taylor’s puzzlement about Hume as to whether he was the one or the other or even both seemed to Wittgenstein a general truth. He did not commit himself to the sorting of Hume.

First from Elements of Metaphysics:
It is always difficult, in treating of any branch of knowledge, to put before the beginner a correct preliminary notion of the nature and scope of the study to which he is to be introduced, but the difficulty is exceptionally great in the case of the body of investigations traditionally known as Metaphysics.^ The questions which the science seeks to answer are, indeed, in principle of the simplest and most familiar kind, but it is their very simplicity and familiarity which constitute the chief difficulty of the subject. We are naturally slow to admit that there is anything we do not understand in terms and ideas which we are constantly using, not only in the special sciences, but in our non-systematised everyday thought and language about the course of the world. Hence, when the metaphysician begins to ask troublesome questions about the meaning and validity of these common and familiar notions, ordinary practical men, and even intelligent students of the special sciences, are apt to complain that he is wasting his time by raising idle and uncalled-for difficulties about the self-evident.

. We can now see some of the reasons which make the science of Metaphysics a peculiarly difficult branch of study. It is difficult, in the first place, from the very simplicity and generality of its problems.

From Philosophical Investigations#121:
The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something - because it is always before one’s eyes.) The real foundations of his enquiry do not strike a man at all. Unless that fact has at some time struck him. - And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful.

It was of course Wittgenstein’s great genius to be able to evoke the sense of oddness of the everyday. The ‘Now go on’ instruction to complete the series or name the odd one out etc. How do you learn that concept of ‘going on’? It takes a philosophic mind to feel that we are stuck on that reef. “In my art or sullen craft” said Dylan Thomas. It is a type of stubborn brooding - there you are sulking over some wretched puzzle and it won’t leave you alone. Go out, dig the garden, make a cup of tea.

Find Elements of Metaphysics here: Elements

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Mad Men: Season 5

The cliche is that if Shakespeare was alive today he’d be making movies. They’re the big thing, auteur author, watching, all-seeing eye in the pyramid. No, that must be altered; Shakey has taken birth as Matthew Weiner and the long running series of seasons is the new Globe. He says, Matthew does, that if he hasn’t written at least 80% of the script that his name is off it. In tv terms that makes Oates’s supererogation seem a trite pet of passive aggression.

Somehow I managed to miss all season 5 of Mad Men. Now that I’ve seen it I’m enlightened about the mystery of how Joan became a partner. That’s how naive I am, a simple gasoon. Don’s fatal interview with Pryce was a creative master stroke and illustrates I think how character can get away from the writer. When a great blackguard becomes righteous with a minor would be one, irony’s icy glitter dazzles. ‘Take it out of the Lucky Strike account’. Peter Campbell’s wife is an example of how excessive sweetness can be poisonous. There always has to be a truth teller in a story and Harry’s mother is it. Campbell’s train companion, ‘good luck with that’, is perhaps Weiner as Reubens in his studio factory adding little touches.

There are no second acts in American lives someone said. I know who said it but that sounds more literary. However there are seventh seasons and seven seals each with a ball on its nose. How will Don die? Will there be the stroke that felleth or the tip that admonisheth? He has begun to ‘share’, not a good sign.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Karma and the Gunas

While actions are being done in every way by the gunas (qualities) of Nature, one who is deluded by egoism thinks thus: ‘I am the doer.’

But, O mighty-armed one, the one who is a knower of the facts about the varieties of the gunas does not become attached, thinking thus: ‘The organs rest (act) on the objects of the organs.’
(Bhagavad Gita: 2: 27,28)

The battle is paused while Krishna explains the finer points of Dharma and Moksha. The moksha medicine pace Aldous Huxley (Island) is practice. By practice we move from the dominance of the gunas of tamas (sluggish, apathetic) and rajas (active, passionate) towards the sattvic (pure, balanced, harmonious). And what is practice? Follow the duties of your station in life, perform the rituals at the correct time and place, give to the poor, visit the sick and so forth. ‘Still one is acting and bound by the laws of karma and subject to the endless round of transmigration’; may be the objection. Krishna’s answer would be that by an inner detachment from the fruits of your work you mitigate the force of what is normal motivation. As used to be said, it’s the process not the product that is important. Also a reticulation of positive habits free you from constantly taking thought.

The other apophatic arm of sattvic practice is to meditate on the unreality of egoic identification. As the Upanishad declares ‘the knower cannot be known’ but deluded we hold fast to a ‘strong central ego’, Freud’s notion of sanity. In the practice of Jnana yoga we focus on the consciousness pervading the gunas making them ‘shine’ and seem to be conscious or self-luminous. Some fine distinctions can be drawn here. In the final analysis the being of everything is consciousness and the level of complexity of the matter that is pervaded reflects that reality to a greater or lesser extent. Expanding on the text of B.G. 2:27, Shankara in his commentary says (I omit most transliterated Sanskrit terms):

While actions, secular and scriptural, are being done, in every way by the gunas, i.e. by the modifications in the form of body and organs; born of Nature – Nature otherwise known as Pradhana being the state of equilibrium of the three qualities of sattva, rajas and tamas one who is deluded by egoism, thinks thus; ’Aham kartá, I am the doer.’

In states of benign dissociation variously called samadhi, satori, contemplative there is a glimpse of the true freedom that is the goal of religious practice. To say that practice is its own end is to say too little and too much. It is true after its own fashion but honest practice not burdened by large brained speculation such as I see in Gary Gutting’s interview with Howard Wettstein will bring surprises.
practiceAt least Pascal thought so.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Redemptive Suffering, Tonglen

"Quite so. A pure light from God. And that is the reason that my excellent curate is storming the citadels of heaven for you by that terrible artillery—the prayers of little children. And if you want to capture this grace of God by one tremendous coup, search out the most stricken and afflicted of my flock (Bittra has a pretty good catalogue of them), and get him or her to pray for you, and very soon the sense of faith will awaken within you, and you will wonder that you were ever blind."
(from My New Curate by Canon Sheehan)

This is the response of Father Dan to Mr. Ormsby who is the fiancé of Bitra Campion. His genuine conversion is what is being prayed for and it is what he earnestly desires but how is he to make that transition from general admiration of the coherence and dignity of the Catholic religion to faith. The chief pleader for the required 'lumen de lumine' is Alice Moylan who is stricken by a terrible disfiguring disease with sores all over her body. This is an example of redemptive suffering and it has connections to the mystical substitution of Charles Williams. In his book The Inner Kingdom Bishop Kallistos Ware mentions him positively. He relates an incident from the life of St. Seraphim who instructs a sister to take on the sickness of her brother who still has work to do. She dies but the brother lives on.

The practice is universal in all the traditions major and minor. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche has an extensive treatment of tonglen in which we draw in with our breath all the misery of another and in dissipation of it also smite our self-guarding cosiness. One can also do it for the recently dead to calm their transition through the stages of the full separation from bodily life. Is this an example of it?(click on image for original)

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Shankara, Buddhist Idealism, Hume, Zombies and Asif the Great Prestidigitator.

But that all his arguments, though otherwise intended, are, in reality,
merely sceptical, appears from this, /that they admit of no answer and
produce no conviction./ Their only effect is to cause that momentary
amazement and irresolution and confusion, which is the result of scepticism.
(from Hume’s Enquiry re Berkeley:Enquiry)

Hume as an idealist was himself on quaking ground so he may have been looking to his own defence. Is this central notion that external reality is at best an inference from inner experience quite so bafflingly irrefutable? Shankara has in my view good counters to the classical moves. In this case the position he impugns is that of Buddhist absolute idealism which shares a family resemblance to Mediate Realism or Representationalism or Phenomenalism etc. This epistemological virus is constantly morphing and it is likely that it may become current again. Philosophers are great sheep and it takes only a few notable thinkers to espouse a position to make it respectable.

Shankaracarya and Absolute Idealism (from B.S.B. II.ii.28)

Vijnavadin: Well, I do not say that I do not perceive any object, but all that I hold is ‘that I do not perceive anything apart from the perception.
Vedantin: Yes, you do speak like that, since you have no curb) to your mouth; but you do not speak logically, for some­thing other than the perception has to be admitted perforce, just because it is perceived. Not that anybody cognizes a perception to be a pillar, a wall, etc., rather all people cognize a pillar, a wall, etc. as objects of perception. And it is for this reason that all people understand those others (viz the Buddhists) as really assuming the existence of an external thing even while they deny it by saying, “That which is the content of an internal awareness appears as though external”. For they use the phrase “as though” in the clause “as though external” just because they too become aware of a cognition appearing externally in the same way as is well known ‘to all people, and yet ‘they want to deny any external’ object. Else why should they say, “as though external”? For ‘nobody speaks thus: “Vistumitra appears like the son of a barren woman”. Accordingly, those who accept truth to be just what it is actually perceived to be, should accept a thing as it actually reveals itself externally, and not “as ‘though appearing outside”.
Buddhist. Since no object can possibly exist externally, I come to ‘the conclusion that it appears as though it is outside.
Vedantin. This conclusion is not honest, since the possibility or impossibility of the existence of a thing is determined in accordance with ‘the applicability or non-applicability of the means of knowledge to it, but the applicability or non applicability of the means of knowledge is not ascertained in a accordance with the possibility or impossibility (of the thing) What is known through any one of the means of knowledge, direct perception etc., is possible, and what cannot be through any one of these means of knowledge is impossible. In the case under discussion, the external things are known individually by the respective means of knowledge; so how can they be declared to be impossible by raising such alternatives as different, non-different, etc. For external things are perceived as a matter of fact. It is wrong to say that external things do not exist merely on the ground that cognition is seen to have the likeness of an object, because the very likeness of an object is not possible unless the object itself be there, and also because the object is cognized outside.

I have been down this road before a few times and different features of the terrain strike my eye each time. Here I note the element of retorsion applied to as though outside . You cannot claim likeness to a position that you think is baseless or of which no exemplars exist. Unless you first know what outside means you cannot use it as a point of similitude. If this 'outside’ is not a possible knowledge you can have nothing to say about it.

Shankara analyses this notion of possibility which is the vital centre of idealism:
Since no object can possibly exist externally, I come to ‘the conclusion that it appears as though it is outside.

He sees it as arising out of a transcendental epistemology, an account of how things must be or how knowledge as such is structured. Existing is existing for us. Outside of this no existence is possible. Shankara dismisses this account of possible existence as merely a epistemological fiat that has no connection to empirical practice. In the normal way we declare that something is possible if the valid means of knowledge are applicable to it. The special use of ‘possible’ which is ontologically prior so to speak to the empirical is not justifiable.

This rebuttal can be applied to the ‘if conceivable then possible’ line of argument that introduced philosophical zombies. The means of knowledge that could be applied to zombies that would establish their possibility as an actuality is mysterious. The zombie is supposed to have pain but to have no consciousness of pain. This seems incoherent and contrary to our normal conception of pain or the function of pain in sentient creatures. Perhaps this whole discussion hinges on the misleading closeness of the meaning of ‘conceivable’ and ‘possible’.