Category: Philosophy

The Ecology of History: Time, Contingency, and Substance

We think intuitively in linear terms: it limits us.

One of the key questions in philosophy is whether or not we (each of us) have free will. It is often referred to as the problem of determinism: are our actions pre-determined? Alternatively put: do we in the exercise of our will define our lives, and change the world? The knee-jerk reaction for the post-modern reader of this essay will invariably be ‘yes’! So let’s take two examples of me having exercised free will, determining my own future, one big and one small. I chose to go to college, and as a result I got a good job and had a successful career. And for the small example – I just lifted a pen from the desk. Are these choices entirely made by me?

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The Folly of Causation

David Hume’s challenge to the philosophy of science – the problem of induction – has never properly been addressed. In essence, it argues that it is impossible to predict the future, because no matter how many experiments we can do, or examples we can take from history, we can never be sure that something we didn’t know might happen – like the emergence of a black swan, first discovered (or so named) in Australia in 1790, and prior to which – in Europe at least – it was presumed that all mature swans were white. We can deduce that if A = B and B = C then A = C. But just because every car we have ever observed has four wheels it does not mean that the next car will have four wheels. It may have only three. Instead of throwing our arms up and saying that none of modern rationalism can really make sense any more, a combination of pragmatism, wilful ignorance and theology have conspired to sweep the inconvenient position under the carpet.

This has profound consequences for the basis of modern thought and epistemology. In particular, it has particular consequences for history and the philosophy of history, and the philosophy of time. It also has a profound and immediately practical bearing on the criminal justice system, and how we attribute blame.

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Language, Love and Meaning

Barreling through Eilenberger’s wonderful book on Weimar German philosophy, Time of the Magicians, themes begin to emerge. Some are forced, it has to be said, though language is certainly a consistent force. As Walter Benjamin had it, ‘the original sin of the philosophy of language in the modern era lies first of all in the fundamentally arbitrary nature of linguistic signs.’ (p.212) Ernst Cassirer ‘…understood man’s development through symbols as a continuous process of liberation that found its starting point in conceptual forms from which mythical thought derived.’ In other words, for Benjamin, language confused everything – that one is forced to theorise and philosophise through language limited the possibility of philosophy. Language of course was but one form of communication, one tool for concept formation; yet each concept, expressed as it had to be through nouns, imposed meaning on the thing, and distance between the signifier and the signified. For Cassirer, mythological concepts were as important as linguistic ones, allowing a level of transcendence – even if still wrapped in the stultifying chains of language.

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The Aesthetics of Aged Things

“And these glimpses have been as often of the ways that were and the ways that might be, as of the ways that are; for ocean is more ancient than the mountains, and freighted with the memories and the dreams of Time.” – H. P. Lovecraft, The White Ship

Staring out the window of the house this morning, I admired the raised beds I’d built ten years ago when we moved in. I had used eight foot scaffolding boards – they were going for a song after the crash, and the building trade was in the tank. Three high, two wide and two deep, these were large beds, with now semi mature trees, nestled into a yard paved with moulded concrete slabs and elsewhere dotted with containers and pots with all sorts of flowers and herbs. The boards were rotting now, but the heavy soil behind had long since settled and posed no direct-pressure threat to the integrity of the walls; they were threatened more from within, as the process of decay meant that they would pretty soon begin to crumble. Autumn is settling in now. I sipped my tea and exhaled; it was a comforting view.

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The Soul of the State

Our stories define us; and how
we tell them is really important.

In his 2019 book The World Philosophy Made, Scott Soames quotes the historian of Greek religion Walter Burkert, who claimed that the epic poetry of Homer and Hesiod was no less than ‘the glue that held Greek society and culture together.’ Burkert says that ‘[t]he authority to whom the Greeks appealed was the poetry of Hesiod and, above all, Homer. The spiritual unity of the Greeks was founded and upheld by poetry – a poetry which could still draw on living oral tradition to produce a felicitous union of freedom and form, spontaneity and discipline. To be a Greek was to be educated, and all education was Homer.’ (Soames, The World Philosophy Made, p.2; Burkert, Greek Religion, p.120)

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The Philosophy of History and The Binary Wasteland

Image result for dead or alive poster original
Death, the ultimate opposition, is the one we choose to disregard.

Presence or absence, with us or against us, in or out: righteousness has dogged mankind in modern times. Confidence in ourselves, in our existence, in our being, as rightful, positive entities on this planet and in this universe, has dominated the human condition. And so we seek to dominate! Assertive and strong (for to be otherwise is wasteful and somehow wrong) our existential duty is to dominate and multiply, to spawn and own. We are – nay, I am – absolute. Who denies me this? Who would argue that my existence is not infinitely significant, eternally worthwhile? Just as I shall not deny others their entitlement, I shall have mine.

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Machine Generated Illusions of Intimacy

Later this week I’m speaking to the UCC conference on Eco-cosmology, Sustainability and a Spirit of Resilience, on the subject of ‘Machine Generated Illusions of Intimacy’, about the challenges of modernity and computational epistemology. Here’s a sneak peak.

The Lost Soul of Europe

Clyfford Still's 1944-N No. 2
Clyfford Still’s 1944-N No. 2. For Still, art was dead in the aftermath of World War II, for it was based on European ‘dogma, authority, tradition. The totalitarian hegemony of this tradition I despise, its presumptions I reject’ (MOMA)

What has happened to Europe? What of our glorious post-war project to bring together our cultured peoples after centuries of war, that brave experiment not merely in statecraft, but in post-state statecraft, to redefine government, and seize peace to our hearts? It has persevered and grown for over sixty years, launching exuberantly into the new Millennium with the Euro, but now she finds herself beset on all sides by vast forces including geopolitics, security, technology and global finance. Worst of all, Europe seems to have lost its soul. Not merely its raison d’etre, but its spirit, its ambition. What is missing?

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Deus Ex Machina: Schmitt’s Political Theology

The concept of political theology describes the theological genealogy of political legitimacy, the validation or justification of power over others in the equitable establishment of order, and the protection of freedom. As an idea, it is associated with Carl Schmitt, one of what Yvonne Stewart called ‘Hitler’s Philosophers’, an intellectual inheritance tainted by his association with and support for the Nazi party. Nevertheless, as an abstract concept, political theology helps us to deconstruct the nature of power, and trace its origins in legitimacy and the development of political order. Because as we have seen technology embeds politics, particularly and more aggressively as automation and AI proliferate, it has become important to consider whether technology itself has some divine provenance in its human construction.

While Schmitt was immediately despondent, and wrote on the night of Hitler’s accession to power in 1933 ‘[i]t is a terribly cold night’, in the words of Stewart ‘[h]e relegated democracy to a burnt memory, and, like a dark phoenix from the ashes, he allowed tyranny to rise: authoritative, powerful and legitimate.’ (p. 103) It is impossible to detach his legacy from Nazi Germany, and it is necessary to read his work carefully in anticipation of the ideology that it would ultimately support. In the 1934 version of his Political Theology, for example, a work with which this post is substantially concerned, he quotes Emmanuel Sieyès, saying ‘The people are always virtuous. In whatever manner a nation expresses its wishes, it is enough that it wishes; all forms are good but its will is always the supreme law.’ (p. 48) Still, there are sufficient constructions in the work that allow us to consider a coherent, structured theological etymology or structure for politics and the political.

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Reflections on Blackwater: Technological Theologies, Autistic Robots, and Chivalric Order

order-now
Order is something we take for granted. That’s the mistake, the grand error of modernity.

In his 1966 work The Order of Things, Michel Foucault describes in his preface a passage from Borges to establish his objective. Quoting Borges, who in turn refers to ‘a certain Chinese encyclopaedia’, the section describes a classification of animals as being ‘divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’. In a later lecture recalled by Laurie Taylor, Foucault lambasted the impulse to capture and mount every butterfly in a genus and lay them out on a table, to highlight minute differences in form and colour, as if trying to solve God’s puzzle. Continue reading “Reflections on Blackwater: Technological Theologies, Autistic Robots, and Chivalric Order”