Category Archives: Essays

Stumbling upon M.C. Escher’s garden in Bohuslän

A very rough,  preliminary sketch of an apology to Socrates for the arts

What does the art of M.C Escher have in common with Bohus knits?  Surprisingly much, if you ask me.  While most people, even if they don’t know the name, would probably recall having seen at least a few of M.C. Escher’s prints, the same is not true of Bohus Knitting.  Because many people, at least outside of Sweden and outside of knitting circles, are likely to be wholly unfamiliar with Bohus knits, a short history is in order.

The history begins in 1939, when a group of Swedish women living in Bohuslän (the Göteborg area in the southwestern part of Sweden) formed a knitting (“stickning”) cooperative.  Many of their husbands – miners and farmers – lost their jobs due to the Depression, so they hoped to supplement their income.  Their venture turned out to be a tremendous success both at home and abroad.  Bohus knits were widely exhibited internationally and presented as gifts to visiting kings and dignitaries in Sweden.   The cooperative closed in 1969, but many of the patterns are still in circulation today.  The Bohusläns Museum (click here for an English version of the page) also has a fairly extensive collection of patterns on display and knitting kits on sale.  Additional patterns can be found here.  The two images below are examples of the intricate patterns and color work that became the signature of this knitting style. (Clicking on the image redirects to a more detailed picture on the Museum website.)

0502_detalj_stor

Bohus "Skogsmörkret" pattern (Forest Darkness)

Bohus "vävnaden" pattern

Bohus "Vävnaden" pattern

I have been posting some of my knitting and crochet projects in my blog gallery, and I was browsing through the Bohus patterns in search of something new to knit.  It didn’t take me long, however, to realize that these patterns were well beyond my current skill level.  As I am often blown away by the ingenuity of even some of the most basic knitting motifs and the sheer number of possibilities unlocked by the use of just two fundamental stitches, I surmised that the woman tho created the first Bohus pattern must have been a mathematical genius, and a quote from M.C. Escher, which had once deeply impressed me, leapt to mind.  I went to look up the passage, which was as follows:

Mathematicians have theoretically mapped out the regular division of a plane because this is part of crystallography.  Does it therefore belong exclusively to mathematics?  I do not think so.  Crystallographers have given us a definition of the concept and have researched and determined what and how many systems and methods exist for dividing a plane regularly.  By doing this they have opened the gate that gives access to a vast domain, but they themselves have not entered.  Their nature is such that they are more interested in the way the gate is opened than in the garden that lies behind it.  Let me continue with this analogy for a while.  Long ago during my wanderings I happened to come into the neighborhood of that domain.  I saw a high wall and, because I had a presentiment of something enigmatic and hidden that might lie behind it,  I climbed it with difficultly.  However, on the other side I landed in a wilderness through which I had to make my way with much effort until I arrived via detours at the open gate, the open mathematical gate.  From there well-cleared paths extended in various directions, and since then I often spend time there.  Sometimes I think I have covered the entire domain and trod all the paths and admired all the views.  Then all of a sudden I find another new way, and I taste a new delight.

-M. C. Escher, from The Regular Division of the Plain, as compiled in Escher on Escher

It occurred to me that the Bohus knitters were playing in, or at least on the perimeter of, that very same garden described by Escher.  Knitters must knit their own canvas, so in a way, the very nature of knitting assures that the background will not be reduced to an inferior status.   And, repetition and multiplication, which Escher credited for “everything we love, learn, order, recognize, and accept,” is also central to the knitters craft.

One of my favorite plane-filling motifs by M.C. Escher

One of my favorite plane-filling motifs by M.C. Escher

Plane-filling Motif on Bohus Mitten

Plane-filling motif on Bohus mitten

While Escher was a graphic artist (so the template for his individual prints was contained in an etching),  a knitter reproduces his or her work by means of codifying the pattern in a set of instructions which look something like this:   K1, p1, [p4, k4] twice, k5, p1 (the preceding symbols representing a single row in a pattern for a scarf).  Or, more complicated patterns can be represented in charts, using symbols like these:

Chart from scarf pattern on knitty.com

Chart from scarf pattern on knitty.com

To the uninitiated, these symbols appear fairly daunting:  there is nothing to connect it with, it is a language that stands on its own.  Yet, at least knitters possess a language into which they can translate their visual creations and share them among themselves.  This allows for the creation of vibrant knitting communities and the development of distinctive styles of knitting, such as that exemplified by Bohus Stickning.  Escher, on the other hand, expresses frustration in what follows with his inability to communicate thoughts which he, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, viewed as essentially objective:

It is not part of my profession to make use of letter symbols, but in this case I am forced to.  However, I have not received any training for this, as I have in the use of illustrations that serve as a means of expressing thoughts in a more direct way than the word.  Still, my images require explanation because without it they remain too hermetic and too much of a formula for the uninitiated observer. The interplay of thoughts they translate is essentially completely objective and impersonal.  To my unending amazement, however, this is apparently so unusual and in a sense so new that I am unable to identify any “expert” in addition to myself who is sufficiently comfortable with it to give a written explanation.

-M. C. Escher, from The Regular Division of the Plane, as compiled in Escher on Escher

Escher found a certain degree of comity with mathematicians, however, with whom he sometimes collaborated. I don’t even think it is too much of a stretch to suggest that his collaboration with the physicist Roger Penrose, among others, is quite possibly the closest link between art and math and the natural sciences since the time of Leonardo da Vinci’s collaboration with the Italian mathematician Luca Pacioli. The resulting book, De Divina Proportione (The Divine Proportion), written by Pacioli and illustrated by Da Vinci, carried an immeasurable influence on the trajectory of art and architecture that followed, up until today.  It is an astonishing shame, therefore, that although any property right maintained in that work should have long since expired, the book appears to be unavailable today, either in hard copy or as scanned in databases such as Project Gutenberg or Google Books. (If anyone knows anything about this, please comment or email me!)

The preceding thoughts all led me to wonder:  why, apart from a few notable exceptions, is there such a large divide between art on the one hand, and math and the natural sciences on the other?  This divide traces back at least to the time of Plato, who, in his Republic, famously argued for the censorship of all art that didn’t pass his rather strict criteria. This, I believe, was Plato’s greatest error, as I will try to explain.

In the single most profound statement of educational philosophy I have ever encountered, in Book VII of The Republic, Plato claims that education is not “putt[ing] into the soul knowledge that isn’t in it,” but rather a redirection, a “turning around.” Plato thought that the soul must be turned away from the material world, or what “is coming into being,”  and instead turned towards the forms, which for Plato were true being, or what is.  A significant part of The Republic is thus devoted to the problem of ensuring that able people remain faced in the right direction, so to speak.  To accomplish this, Plato resorts to all kinds of contortions, including the extreme censorship mentioned previously, but also the so-called “noble lie,”  the deprivation of wages and all forms of private property for the upper-classes, communal living (no spouses, no one to know whose children belong to who), and the suggestion that knowledge of the forms will allow one to reap rewards posthumously.  All of these measures were outlined as means to blunt the all too human desire for material gain.  But, these measures also transformed Plato’s noble aristocracy into a regime that had all too much in common with a tyranny.

Plato didn’t need to resort to so many contortions to accomplish his objective.  What he needed was art.  Although he devoted much of his work in defence of philosophy, in part by drawing a clear distinction between true philosophy and philosophy corrupted by worldly values, he apparently failed to allow that art too, could become corrupt.  In keeping with an analogy used by Plato in the Gorgias:  sophistry: justice :: cookery: medicine :: entertainment : art.  Or, too put it in another way, a lawyer has about as much in common with a true philosopher as an entertainer has with an artist.

Although I do not of course subscribe to Plato’s view of the forms, I do think that there is still a certain sense in which philosophy (and more generally, the natural sciences, which were not distinct in Plato’s time) need art.  Art is the natural motivating factor that forms the counter-balance to the material drives that Plato so desperately tried to control.  Escher expresses this point so perfectly by his garden analogy to which the mathematicians opened the gate but did not enter.  Unfortunately, Escher’s words resonated with all too few, and today a connection between art and science is often very difficult to find.

Instead, it is science and technology that are bound so tightly that it is sometimes hard to tell when science ends and technology begins.  This is all good and well, but I cannot help but feel that the German philosopher Martin Heidegger was on to something with his essay The Question Concerning Technology:  there are other ways of relating to being that we might do well to remember.  Art is one of these ways.

To borrow a useful distinction from Berkeley Professor John Searle concerning ontological and epistemic subjectivity and objectivity, albeit in an unintended context:   technology is created roughly by taking something given, something which is ontologically objective, and then manipulating it to perform a function which is ontologically subjective.  Recall now Escher’s statement that the thoughts he represented were essentially objective.  True art, I believe, takes care to maintain ontological objectivity – there is no change on a fundamental ontological level.  Instead, with art, the change occurs on the epistemic level.  The artist shows us a different way of looking at – of knowing – something ontologically objective.  Art is thus epistemically subjective, but an underlying ontologically objective structure must be maintained, or it is not art. [When an epistemic change is brought about to an underlying structure that is ontologically subjective (e.g., buildings, furniture, clothes, etc.), it is design.]*

It is this epistemically subjective feature of art that accounts for another interesting observation of Escher’s.  He notes:

The plastic arts have not experienced an evolution.  In everything else that man makes and in much of what he thinks, he adds his contribution to what has been done by previous generations.  In everything he strives toward perfection.  The development of his spirit and his increasing mental grasp are staggering in all aspects — except in the plastic arts.  It seems to me that here each individual has to start from scratch each time, without ever taking anything of really primary importance from a predecessor.

-M.C. Escher, from Newsletter of the Dutch Circle of Graphic Artists and Illustrators as compiled in Escher on Escher.

While one might certainly argue against Escher and hold that art has evolved and artists, just as scientists, also “stand on the shoulders of giants,” I think this is missing the point.  There is undeniably a sense in which art is not cumulative in the same sense as that of progress in technology.  This argument is all too often used against art, to show its inferiority (or perhaps more often, it’s unworthiness for funding).  I suppose this is what prompts patrons of the arts to argue that art has “evolved,” as well as other arguments attempting to show the material usefulness of art.  However, any defense of art that proceeds by attaching an ontologically subjective function to it could only result in a Pyrrhic victory:  such a win could only come at the cost of denying to art its defining and most-worthy feature.

A proper defense of art must redress Aristophanes’ affront to Socrates which so enraged Plato. Such a defense would necessarily invoke the same difficulties Plato had in The Republic with defending philosophy generally, but if we are to avoid the contortions Plato resorted to, art must take its rightful place beside philosophy as the one motivational factor capable of “turning around” the intellect  and providing a counter-balance in the individual’s life to the drive for material gain.  The roots for such a defense, I think, are there to be found in the writings and work of M.C. Escher and the Bohus knitters.

* These distinctions are not always so clear due to the fact that there can also be art on top of (or even, e.g., on the walls of) a design, as is the case with knitting, but this simply recasts the age-old form-function-ornament debate, which is beyond the scope of this draft.

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Crucifixion

On Dostoevsky’s conception of authority in The Brothers Karamazov

An ugly side of humanity exposed itself when members of the social news sites digg.com and reddit.com crucified an artist whose books failed to live up to the refined tastes of the digg and reddit community.  The relevant posts can be found here (digg) and here (reddit).

It is with some embarrassment that I admit the treatment of this artist brought tears to my eyes. My first thoughts were along the lines of “What if the author is child whose parents helped publish his first attempt at a novel to encourage his creative expression?” Would this experience forever crush the naive enthusiasm for writing that had developed in someone who could have otherwise developed into a great talent? Then I wondered what would have happened if Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, the first part of which was narrated by a retarded man, was judged and dismissed by the first page in a similar manner. Or what if the book was intended as science fiction satire, and the narrator’s bad grammar a clever version of the “unreliable narrator” device?

I soon realized, however, that my “don’t judge a book by its cover (or first page)” rationalization was not sufficient to account for the strength of my feeling.  However, at the time, I also happened to be reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and following the webcasts about the book from Professor Dreyfus’s course in Existentialism in Literature and Film at the University of California, Berkeley.  The lectures were enlightening in many ways, but of particular interest to me was Professor Dreyfus’s insight into Dostoevsky’s attempt to “existentialize” various key Christian doctrines such as baptism, confession, miracles, the incarnation, and of course, the crucifixion. Dostoevsky’s intent was to explain certain religious teachings in terms of everyday human experience.  Thus, for example, baptism is explained as a lasting childhood memory of kindness, and miracles are explained, not as events which contradict the laws of physics and chemistry, but as meaningful coincidences and revealing dreams.  As a secular person, religious doctrines are usually far off my radar, so I am certain that I would have missed this key aspect of the book were it not for the webcasts.

It suddenly dawned on me that, with respect to the above posts on the social news sites, I was witnessing a modern version of the crucifixion in a form similar to that existentialized by Dostoevsky.  Here was a man relentlessly mocked based on nothing more than the evidence of the bad grammar and simple-mindedness of the narrator on the first page of an original novella.  On this flimsy evidence, the author was held up as nothing less than the symbol of a deteriorating popular culture itself- a culture that all too often celebrates the crude, the immature and the stupid.

My husband wondered how I could feel so badly for this author when he could only benefit from all the attention and the many “positive reviews” of his book on Amazon.  In fact, my husband went on to point out, this author had quite possibly sold more books as gag gifts than many struggling authors sell in a life-time.  Far from providing comfort, however, these reflections only served to further validate my thoughts, for they pointed to the fact that the people mocking this artist are inextricably part of the same culture.  These are the members of the social news sites which also showed enthusiastic support for such exemplars of intelligence and taste as, for example, Hot Chicks Who Date Douchebags and Explosions and Boobs. It seems to me then, that to the extent the book is a product of that culture, the tormentors bear the same guilt as the author.  To the extent, however, that this artist dared to place his individual stamp on this shared culture by creating a original work of art, the author has proven himself infinitely greater than the lemmings mocking him.

I suddenly saw that this person’s ultimate potential as a writer and the merits of this particular book were irrelevant. The point is that the author did not let himself be defined by culture, but rather, working as a part of and within his culture, he created something original.  Is there any greater destiny or higher purpose in the life of man than to develop his potential as an individual? And what surer means to achieve this goal than creative expression?  What right do these people, blindly following the crowd, have to judge this author as an individual?

It was then that I remembered there were some unanswered questions posed by Professor Dreyfus in his lectures on The Brothers Karamazov concerning the nature of authority as well as the role of crucifixion.  In one lecture, Professor Dreyfus noted that in The Grand Inquisitor (a kind of story within the story of The Brothers Karamazov), Dostoevsky set up the question of authority as an issue with which he would be concerned.  However, Professor Dreyfus wondered where in the book Dostoevsky solved this riddle by showing his readers the wrong ways and the right way to exercise authority.  In another lecture, Professor Dreyfus put forth a second set of questions concerning the nature and role of crucifixion: why is it that there needs to be someone who suffers for the sins of everyone?, how would one go about suffering for everyone?, and how can the suffering of one person somehow make the world better, or fix something that was bad before?  It is my contention that the questions about authority on the one hand, and crucified on the other are very closely related, and in the following paragraphs, I will attempt to explain why.

Warning: spoiler alert for The Brothers Karamazov*

The problem of authority

Dostoevsky sets up the problem of authority as an antinomy.  He puts it forth in the clearest form towards the end of book, right before Dmitry’s trial.  At this point in the book, the narrator notes that everyone in attendance agreed that the evidence was conclusive and Dmitry must have committed the crime.  However, the majority of males in the audience, many with “stern, frowning faces . . . equivocally desired retribution for the criminal . . . ” (840) In contrast, the woman were “irrevocably convinced” that Dmitry would “‘be acquitted on grounds of humanity, of the new ideas, the new emotions that are now about,’ etcetera, etcetera.” (847)

The men, in other words, took a traditional view of authority which implies the existence of something like absolute guilt and innocence. According to this view, one person’s fate is decided from the perspective of a wholly innocent authority.  If the person is judged to be guilty, he bears the sole responsibility for his crime, and the most extreme forms of punishment are warranted (e.g., Siberia).  This view can be thought of as representing an ideal of justice governed by the principle of retribution.

The women, on the other hand, appear to believe that environmental circumstances coupled with Dmitry’s Dmitry’s “>Karamazovian nature compelled him to kill his father.  As the crime was inevitable, and Dmitry had no real choice in the matter, he was a victim and could not be held responsible for his actions.  This view seems to lead to complete anarchy, where no one can be held responsible for anything, and no one can be in a position to judge anyone else. On the other hand, this view can also be thought of as representing an ideal of justice governed by the principle of mercy.  The idea is that, if a man is shown mercy, he will see that “I am guilty before all men and am the most unworthy of all men” and that “men are better than I.” (953) This realization will then cause the criminal to repent and spend the rest of his life in atonement for “the numberless debt that stands before him from this day.” (953)

The two polar positions are also represented by the public procurator and Dmitry’s defense counsel, and are spelled out in great detail in the two closing speeches.  Many of the main points are further highlighted when the crowd interrupts at various times to applaud the speaker.  The speeches bring to mind the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus‘s play The Eumenides, which depicts the trial of Orestes for the murder of his mother.  In this play, Apollo takes the role of the defense attorney for Orestes against the Furies thirst for revenge on behalf of his mother’s spirit. The comparison is interesting to me, because in the Greek play, reason seemed to represent both justice and mercy taking a stand against a savage and barbaric notion of vengeance.  For Dostoevsky, reason seems to play a dual role:  on the one hand, seemingly overwhelming evidence is marshaled by the prosecutor in support of his call for retribution, on the other hand, the defense counsel turns reason in on itself and argues that the “evidence” can be used to support just about any story and that, therefore, mercy is the only reasonable option.

The role of crucifixion in resolving the antinomy

Dostoevsky’s means of solving this antinomy follows directly from his conception of connectedness.  For Dostoevsky, everything and everyone is connected, and “all is like an ocean, all flows and is contiguous, and if you touch it in one place it will reverberate at the other end of the world.” (414) There can be chains of good, but there can also be chains of evil.

Each day and hour, each minute walk close to yourself and take care that your inward form is well-apportioned.  Perhaps you have walked past a little child, walked past him angry, with a foul remark, with a wrathful soul, it may be that you did not notice him, the child, but he saw you, and your inward form, unattractive and impious, may have remained within his unprotected little heart.  You were not even aware of this, but by that very fact it may be that you have sown a bad seed in him, and it may grow, and all because you did not guard yourself in the presence of a young child, because you had not tutored in yourself a love circumspect and active.

-Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, From the Discourses of the Elder Zosima, Concerning Prayer, Love and the Contiguity with Other Worlds

Thus, it is very easy for a person to begin or perpetuate a chain of evil, as illustrated, for example, when Alyosha deeply offends Grushenka by refusing to look at her.  On the other hand, there is also a seemingly infinite number of places any one person could intervene to stop a chain of evil and transform it, through love, to an “onion” (good) chain.  Dostoevsky therefore takes a very broad view concerning crimes of omission, which is brought into sharp focus with respect to Ivan’s role in the crime.  In Dostoevsky’s view, it appears that any person who fails to stop a crime shares at least some part of the guilt with the acting criminal.

. . .realize that you yourself are guilty, for you might have brought light to the evil-doers, as the only sinless one, and you did not shine.  If you had shone, then with your light you would have illumined the path for the others, too, and he that committed the evil deed might not have committed it in your light.

-Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, From the Discourses of the Elder Zosima, Is it Possible to be a Judge of One’s Fellow Men?  Of Faith Unto the End

In light of Dostoevsky’s views concerning crimes of omission and the connectedness of all things, what first appears to be the bizarre ramblings of a delirious child and an old monk is seen to embody a profound Christian truth:  “each of us is guilty before the other for everything.” (374) Moreover, this is a truth that is seldom recognized by those who presume to judge the acts of their fellow human beings.**

Recall again the virtual crowd on the social news sites mocking an artist from within a shared culture, and consider the following biblical verses, the first of which is the response of Jesus on the cross to the mocking crowd as found in Luke:

Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.  Luke 23:34

Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself, for you who judge practice the same things.  Romans 2:1

Let the person among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone . . .  John 8:7

Now consider the death of Fyodor Pavlovich in The Brothers Karamazov. The true murderer was someone who, as a child, never met with agape love, but instead was told that he was “inhuman.” That set the stage for him to lap up “the new ideas, the new emotions that are now about,’ etcetera, etcetera” (847) in the culture, and come to the logical conclusion from this that “all things are lawful.” (808).   The murderer acted with no motive to speak of, but purely as a creature of culture.  Thus, everyone attending Dmitry’s trial bore some guilt for the murder.  In a delirious rage, Ivan Fyodorovich accuses the crowd:

‘Oh, I am in my right mind, all right . . . and it is a villainous mind, the same as yours, the same as theirs, the lot of them, those . . . p-pug-mugs!’ he said, turning suddenly to the public.  ‘A father has been murdered, and they pretend they are frightened,’ he ground out with malicious contempt.  ‘They give themselves airs before one another.  Liars!  They all desire the death of their fathers.  One vile reptile consumes the other . . . Were it not for the parricide they would all lose their tempers and disperse in a rage . . . Circuses!  ‘Bread and Circuses‘!’

-Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, A Sudden Catastrophe (emphasis added)

Given Dostoevsky’s view of the connectedness of all things and the infectious nature of evil, crucifixion becomes a necessary means of stopping an evil chain.  Evil must, so to speak, bottom out somewhere:  it grows and grows until it is at last definite, recognizable, and unignorable.  At that point, the crowd rises in horror to publicly expose and root out the evil. In a kind of false unity, but unity nonetheless, the crowd finds someone to hold responsible, and crucifies the last link in the chain.***  A person can only serve as the last link in a chain of evil if they take the suffering upon themselves in the right way, however, which brings me to my next point.

The proper exercise of authority

Authority must be exercised with compassion, in a way that recognizes the suffering of the one crucified and helps him to understand the important role he must play in putting an end to the chain of evil.

Bear in mind that you can be no man’s judge. For a criminal can have no judge upon the earth until that judge himself has perceived that he is every bit as much of a criminal as the man who stands before him, and that for the crime of the man who stands before him he himself may well be more guilty than anyone else.  Only when he grasps this may he become a judge . . . And even if the law itself appoints you as his judge, then act even then to the best of your ability in this same spirit, for he will go away and condemn himself even more harshly than your judgment . .

– Fyoder Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, From The Discourses of the Elder Zosima, Is it Possible to be a Judge of One’s Fellow Men?  Of Faith Unto the End

According to Dostoevsky, sometimes, it is even appropriate for a judge to take the suffering upon himself.

If you are able to take upon yourself the crime of the man who stands before you and is judged by your heart, then lose no time, but do so and suffer for him yourself, while letting him go without reproach.

-Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, From the Discourses of the Elder Zosima, Is it Possible to be a Judge of One’s Fellow Men?  Of Faith Unto the End

The ideal use of authority is illustrated best in the book by Alyosha, when he intervenes during the “stoning” of little Ilyusha by six other boys.  Although Ilyusha taunts and throws rocks at Alyosha too, Alyosha does not retaliate.  Instead, he repeatedly asks of the boy how it came to be that Alyosha had done something to harm him.  The little boy then bites Alyosha’s finger to the bone, and still, Alyosha does retaliate.  In this scene, which recalls the biblical imperative to “turn the other cheek,” Alyosha has taken upon himself the suffering of the little boy, and in so doing, puts an end to the chain of evil that led to the stoning incident.

The forms of judgment elaborated in the antimony do not serve to stop the chain of evil. If one presumes absolute guilt and innocence, and assigns the full responsibility of a crime to one person, an injustice has also been committed:  namely, the criminal’s dual role as a victim as well as a perpetrator goes unrecognized, and the people in the chain that introduced the evil to the perpetrator go unpunished.  Thus, if the perpetrator is brought to understand his suffering and punishment in a retributive sense, all he sees is injustice with respect to others who were not caught or punished for their evil deeds.  This he is likely to stew over, and later use as a rationalization for committing further crimes, further perpetuating the chain of evil.  On the other hand, if the perpetrator is brought to understand that, although he is the basest of the base among men, he will go unpunished solely because the one judging him is infinitely greater and wiser than he, he will more likely than not continue to act the base role assigned to him, as well as attempt to bring everyone else down to his level.  That evil can be spread in this way is illustrated by Fyodor Pavlovich in the beginning of the book when he plays the buffoon at the monastery and explains:

When I go among people I do indeed always feel that I’m more vile than any of them and that they all take me for a buffoon, and so I say to myself: ‘Very well, I really will play the buffoon . . ‘

-Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, An Inappropriate Gathering

Before this scene, the Elder Zosima warned Fyodor Pavlovich to “above all, do not be so ashamed of yourself, for it is from that that all the rest proceeds.” (62)  This same kind of evil shows up again when Grushenka feels ashamed of herself before “a man like [Alyosha].” (454)

Dostoevsky understands all too well that that empirical truth that people who live in crime have often been victimized themselves – they grow up surrounded by crime and poverty and see no other alternatives open to them – the abused becomes the abuser.  The only way out of this cycle seems to be through transformative suffering.  The role of the judge is not condemnation, but compassion.  The judge must greet the criminal with agape love, and, understanding that he is a victim as well as a perpetrator, accept him as an individual -both the good and the bad.  The judge is then in a position to bring a criminal to understand that there is another alternative: namely, he may affirm the good within him and continue the chain of agape love.  Only with this understanding will the criminal be capable of bringing an end to the chain of evil that has so ensnared him.

Thus, with respect to the author crucified on the social news site, criticism may have been appropriate, but only constructive criticism from those who have read the entire book. Further, only individuals can properly serve as judges, group-think cannot lead to a fair evaluation.  And, finally, perhaps in this case, it is only fellow artists who could have a deep enough understanding of the difficulties of the task faced by the author to be able to adequately illustrate for him how to overcome and transform the deficiencies he is inadvertently perpetuating.

With respect to criminal justice, there is possibly no greater example of this type of compassion than that offered by the legendary defense attorney Clarence Darrow, who must have been channeling Dostoevsky in his argument on behalf of Leopold and Loeb:

I know, Your Honor, that every atom of life in all this universe is bound up together. I know that a pebble cannot be thrown into the ocean without disturbing every drop of water in the sea. I know that every life is inextricably mixed and woven with every other life. I know that every influence, conscious and unconscious, acts and reacts on every living organism, and that no one can fix the blame. I know that all life is a series of infinite chances, which sometimes result one way and sometimes another. I have not the infinite wisdom that can fathom it, neither has any other human brain. But I do know that if in back of it is a power that made it, that power alone can tell, and if there is no power then it is an infinite chance which man cannot solve . . .

Why should this boy’s life be bound up with Frederick Nietzsche, who died thirty years ago, insane, in Germany? I don’t know. I only know it is. I know that no man who ever wrote a line that I read failed to influence me to some extent. I know that every life I ever touched influenced me, and I influenced it; and that it is not given to me to unravel the infinite causes and say, “This is I, and this is you.” I am responsible for so much; and you are responsible for so much. I know that in the infinite universe everything has its place and that the smallest particle is a part of all. Tell me that you can visit the wrath of fate and chance and life and eternity upon a nineteen-year-old boy! If you could, justice would be a travesty and mercy a fraud.

-Clarence Darrow, summation in Leopold and Loeb (emphasis added)

Darrow insisted upon arguing solely in front of a judge, and declined the right to trial by jury for fear that the trial would become a circus that could only end with the boys being sentenced to death.  The two boys defended by Darrow were spared their lives by the judge, but sentenced to life in prison.

* All page number references in parenthesis are to Penguin Classics 2003 edition of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov, translated by David McDuff.

** Professor Dreyfus maintains that Zosima’s statements on this particular point do not represent the solution to the antinomy.  I do not agree.  Zosima has the answer, or at least the beginning of the answer, to nearly all of the antinomies set up in the book.  Professor Dreyfus also notes that other commentators have held that Zosima represents Dostoevsky’s view on this point, and I think Dreyfus’s claim that Zosima goes wrong here is in need of much further evidence than the mere assertion that it just seems wrong, because, for example, it does not make sense for Zosima to hold himself responsible for remote horrors occurring in Africa.  Rather, it seems to me that Zosima’s view on this point follows directly and logically from his views on connectedness, which Professor Dreyfus seems to accept.  By his objections, Professor Dreyfus does raise an important question concerning the limits and degree of responsibility of any given individual for the evil of the world.  However, this question also appears to be answered by Dostoevsky through Zosima’s discussion with Fyodor Karamazov concerning the dangers in feeling ashamed before others, a theme that occurs throughout the book, particularly when Grushenka misinterprets Alyosha’s demeanor for disgust directed towards her.  It appears then, that the guilt one bears before all creatures does not mean that one is necessarily more guilty than everyone else or that one bears sole responsibility for the evils of the world – that would result in shame before one’s fellow-men, which only results in further evil.  It is rather a sense of shared responsibility that Zosima is referring to by the statements in point.

Further, picking up Professor Dreyfus’s example of the remote occurrences in Africa, let’s take, for example, the case of child soldiers. Can a person in the West share some responsibility for the murder and torture victims of a child soldier operating in Somalia or Sierra Leone?  According to UNICEF, child soldiers most often join the army either “voluntarily” because they have no other choice or means of survival,  or they are kidnapped and forced into service.  Once a part of the army, they are “socialized” into violence, usually by witnessing the torture and murder of other individuals, even friends and family members, and/or being tortured, beaten and drugged themselves.  Given these circumstances, are these children to bear full responsibility for the evils they commit for their regimes?  A good case could be made that the children are also victims.  So should the handlers and trainers be responsible, many of whom were also retained previously as child soldiers themselves?  Or should the African governments be held responsible?  And if the governments should be held responsible, who is it that should be holding them accountable?  No one?  Such would be the view of those who hold man has no right to judge the actions of another.  The West, perhaps?  Certainly, if the world made it a priority, they could intervene and stop such practices.  But they don’t.  Why?  The governments of the West are democratically accountable.  Ultimately then, the reason for the non-intervention turns on the priorities of the citizens of those countries.  Perhaps the decision for non-intervention (or minimal intervention) is even morally justifiable, but even if so, these children soldiers and their victims are still suffering because the world’s resources are devoted to other causes, both public and private, elsewhere.  This can be viewed as a crime of omission on a large scale.  The evil in the world bottoms out, so to speak, on the lives of these children and their victims. Certainly, a case for shared responsibility can be made, and I strongly believe this is the case Dostoevsky is making.

Take an example more familiar and current within the U.S:  tort reform, and in particular, medical malpractice reform.  Currently our system is one of “shame and blame,” in which patients are able to sue doctors or other treatment providers individually or jointly “responsible” for adverse treatment outcomes.  There are many problems with this system, least among them is that it doesn’t appear to be working.  Statistics have shown that medical errors happen more frequently in the United States than other rich countries.  There have been many explanations offered as to why this system of accountability does not work.  One hypothesis that I have heard multiple times is that this “shame and blame” system more often than not creates a culture in which doctors and other health care workers do what they can to protect themselves and their co-workers from lawsuits.  This in turn, even if unintentionally, leads to less emphasis on figuring out exactly what happened – on full disclosure – in order to take appropriate steps to prevent similar mistakes in the future.  One of the most promising solutions proposed is a systems based approach patterned after programs successfully employed in the aviation and nuclear power industries.  For example, in the aviation industry, it is not the pilot’s sole responsibility for the safety of the passengers, but rather the pilot, the maintenance crew, the air traffic controllers, and others all play an important role.  Likewise, in medicine, not only doctors, but also nurses, administrators and the patients themselves all have an important part to play in ensuring a successful outcome.  The approach is backward-looking, in that it is compatible with providing compensation for the victims of the errors, but also forward-looking in a way that the shame and blame system never was:  the new approach focuses on disclosure of errors and the adoption of system-wide checks and preventive measures with the aim of preventing the error from happening again.

Perhaps in the West, it is easier for us to accept this kind of systems-based approached when it concerns negligent errors and global problems for which shared responsibility and diffuse blame seem particularly relevant (environmental problems and climate change come to mind).  It is less easy for us to see how this concept applies when it comes to intentional crimes.  It seems to me, however, that Dostoevsky was interested in eroding this distinction somewhat.  For Dostoevsky, even crimes that we would normally classify as intentional – the murder in the Brothers Karamazov – appeared to be something else.  There was no one person to blame for the murder, rather, the murderer acted as a de-humanized agent of culture (or of the public, in Kierkegaard’s terms).  Given Dostoevsky’s broad view on crimes of omission, as well as the emphasis he places at the end of the book poking fun of the doctor’s alleged ability to testify regarding the defendant’s mental state, and the prosecution and defense arguments concerning the defendant’s intent, there is a strong case to be made that for Dostoevsky, crimes, even intentional crimes, are a societal problem that everyone, at least in the community, shares some degree of responsibility for.  This position appears to me as something like a positive relativism, in which there is never any doubt that any given criminal end is evil (and not just legally, but also morally), but for that evil, there is never any one person solely responsible.  The idea was to turn the culture into a positive force in the lives of individuals, to spread eventually over the whole world.

*** This type of crucifixion, however, by the crowd, would be avoided given the proper exercise of authority. In fact, Alyosha expresses his disgust for this type of crucifixion in the epilogue when Ilyusha’s friends all claim that they also wished to sacrifice themselves for truth and justice (like Dmitry), to which Alyosha replies “[b]ut surely not in such a cause, not with such disgrace, such horror!”  Thus, while crucifixion per se is not needed, it seems that there will always need to be someone able to suffer for the sins of others in order to put a stop to evil chains.

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To the nihilists

The role of creativity in the search for ‘searching necessity’

There are people I know who, having lost religion in their adolescence, throw themselves into the pursuit of science and technology with all the fervor of “irrational rationality.” Later, as they begin to mature, it dawns on them that science may not be the panacea they once believed it to be. Cracks begin to appear. Their thoughts begin to turn to those eternal questions for which science offers no answer:  “Why am I here?”, “What is my purpose?”.  More alarmingly, they begin to see themselves from a scientific perspective, and when the whole of the universe is your reference point, a single human life is but an insignificant blip in celestial time.

Perhaps they then attempt to figure out what went wrong, and reach back to the fundamentals of science.  They begin to peel back layers upon layers of logical systems in search of the lowest common denominators.  They begin to ask themselves, “Why Greenwich?”.  In other words, why, for example, should our system of coordinated time be built around Greenwich as opposed to a more relevant city?  It occurs to them that all systems are built around a similarly arbitrary empirical basis.

After failing to find meaning in the empirical, they might then take refuge in pure reason, in logic and math.  But soon they find themselves caught in a web of equivalencies, with everything defined in terms of everything else. Reason is unmasked as an empty tautology and the disillusionment is complete.

Nihilism sets in. A mocking smile is turned on those deluded individuals who still dare to ask the big questions. Although they have turned their scepticism back against science itself, they have not torn themselves from the framework of a scientific worldview.  They fail to see that nihilism can only exist on the basis of division and differentiation.  They are above all scientists, and it does not occur to them that there might be something wrong with ripping the fabric of the world into two pieces – into empirical and rational components – and then surmising that, because each piece taken alone is intrinsically meaningless, it must necessarily follow that the world itself and everything in it must also be intrinsically meaningless.

At this point, if nihilism does not lead to despair, some turn to simple, almost hedonistic pleasures and distractions: YouTube videos, lolcats, or whatever happens to be the latest internet or entertainment trend.  Others devote themselves with renewed energy to their day-jobs and family, with the conviction that the only thing that matters is the biological drive to pass along ones genes and provide for the future.  Others combine the two approaches.

. . . the intellect remains eternally confined within the realm of the conditioned, and goes on eternally asking questions without ever lighting upon any ultimate answer . . . Since, then, he cannot appease his inquiring intellect by evoking any ultimate and inward cause, he manages at least to silence it with the notion of no-cause, and remains within the blind compulsion of matter since he is not yet capable of grasping the sublime necessity of reason.  Because the life of sense knows no purpose other than its own advantage, and feels driven by no cause other than blind chance, he makes the former into the arbiter of his actions and the latter into the sovereign ruler of the world.

-Friedrich Schiller, from Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man

One might argue that the countless diversions supplied by modern entertainment are symptomatic of nihilism: their purpose is escapism, the goal of the participants, sweet oblivion.  It seems to me, however, that these diversions are the result of a one-sided nihilism, one in which the senuous is at least implicitly recognized as an important element in life. This is easier to see with respect to the physical drive to provide for oneself and ones progeny. This drive is not a form of nihilism, but rather a testimony to the power of the materialism inherent to the scientific framework from which they never truly left.  The nihilism of those who embrace this physical drive is incomplete, but they nonetheless feel that there is something missing from their lives, so they still consider themselves nihilists. Why?  If one accepts the premise that man is a synthesis of the mental and the physical, then I maintain that the former, the mental, has been denied in some way.  Is there perhaps, a parallel mental drive corresponding to the physical drive to pass along ones genes and provide for future generations?  In what follows, I argue that there is, that this parallel drive is this creative drive, and that the creative drive is the anecdote to the kind of nihilism that often plagues the most technically and scientifically-minded individuals.

First, some justification is no doubt in order for any statement which implies that scientifically-minded individuals are neglecting their minds.  A brief exposition should serve to clarify my meaning.  I will begin by explaining my understanding of “mind” in this particular context.

To think is to confine oneself to a single thought that one day stands still like a star in the sky.

– Martin Heidegger

It is not uncommon for those who philosophize to preface or introduce their work in terms of a search for a unifying thought or principle. Some, as for example, Heidegger in the above quote, or Schopenhauer in the preface to The World as Will and Representation, take this to an extreme and write thousands of words in explanation of what they claim to be a single thought.  But what does it mean “to confine oneself to a single thought” in this manner?

In his book What is Life?, the physicist Erwin Schrödinger set forth the idea that a defining characteristic of life was a  reduction of entropy, or “negative entropy.”  Whereas inanimate matter falls into more and more disarray, eventually reaching thermodynamic equilibrium, life strives to maintain order against this constant threat of chaos.* Thermodynamic equilibrium is to a living system nothing other than death.  This tendency towards order caused Schrödinger to speculate as to whether another law of thermodynamics would eventually be discovered to accommodate the phenomenon.

Entropy and negative entropy (perhaps better thought of as free energy) strike me as a modern formulation of the twin forces that mankind has marvelled over at least since the Presocratics in ancient Greece began referring to them as “strife and love.” In this framework, life can be viewed as a brazen charge against the second law of thermodynamics.  Note that this is a broader definition than that given by those who would reduce life to the set of physical processes characteristic of all particular life-forms. Rather, under this alternative view, life is a striving, a search for order and unity, and in man, life has evolved an ever more powerful tool in furtherance of its goal.  This tool is man’s mind.  It is the mind which strives to take in a stream of random, disorganized information and spit it back out in ordered, expressible terms.  The mind longs for unity in knowledge.

Science hinders that individual quest for unity in two primary ways.  First, there is the problem of specialization. Almost by definition, the degree of specialization required to practice in any field today precludes an individual’s search for a more unified body of knowledge.

We have inherited from our forefathers the keen longing for unified, all-embracing knowledge. The very name given to the highest institutions of learning reminds us, that from antiquity to and throughout many centuries the universal aspect has been the only one to be given full credit. But the spread, both in and width and depth, of the multifarious branches of knowledge by during the last hundred odd years has confronted us with a queer dilemma. We feel clearly that we are only now beginning to acquire reliable material for welding together the sum total of all that is known into a whole; but, on the other hand, it has become next to impossible for a single mind fully to command more than a small specialized portion of it. I can see no other escape from this dilemma (lest our true who aim be lost for ever) than that some of us should venture to embark on a synthesis of facts and theories, albeit with second-hand and incomplete knowledge of some of them -and at the risk of making fools of ourselves.

-Erwin Schrödinger, from What is Life?

The second problem with modern science is that it has become a slave to the material. That is, as it exists now, the ne plus ultra of science – its greatest aim – is the improvement of material circumstances.  With very few exceptions, scientific funding is contingent on a showing of concrete, practical benefits, usually expected within a relatively short time-frame. Neither the patent system nor the grant system are designed to evaluate new directions in research leading to unknown practical benefits or benefits expected to accrue on a long-term basis. The paradoxical result is that this gap in our incentive structure sometimes leads to slower advancement of the material goals the system exists to support. Is it possible that the promotion of science for science’s sake alone – for the sake of greater understanding, greater unity in thought- could lead to even greater, though perhaps unexpected, material benefit?

These deficiencies in modern science are what lead me to claim that scientists are, in some ways, neglecting their minds. They despair over the thought that science will never be able to answer the big questions, never be able to give them a purpose for living, but they don’t realize that these questions can only be asked from a reference point outside of life, that is to say, the questions are invalid.  Life itself is that very struggle towards order and unity, and one neglects that drive at the expense of their own sense of happiness and fulfillment.

What then, is my suggestion to an unhappy nihilist? (Because, above all, of course, the particular breed of nihilist I have been describing looks to concrete, practical suggestions).  The solution is simple:  create (or, perhaps some people would prefer the term invent). Creation is nothing more than life -the drive to order and unification – in action.  If you feel uninspired, then broaden your knowledge. Seek to learn from fields of knowledge outside your own, and you will find the creative drive will kick in on its own accord as your mind inevitably begins to incorporate the newly discovered knowledge within the framework of what you already know.  The key is to let the mind’s search for unity dictate the material form of the creation, and not the other way around.

A more common problem, I fear, than lack of inspiration, however, is lack of training in expressive mediums. For those who are easily overwhelmed by the possibilities hidden in the sheer amount of information available, it helps remember that any creative break-through must first be expressed conceptually, usually in pictorial or written form.  If your particular field does not allow opportunities for practice and training with creative expression in a suitable medium, then it might be worth your effort to learn more about the different expressive mediums themselves.  This is to me a task for arts and humanities, which has a role both in introducing a person to the historical current of endeavor towards a more all-embracing knowledge, and in training a person in the use of various expressive mediums so they might be capable of contributing their own work.

There are many ways of going about this quest. Ian Fairweather, for example, was an Australian painter who described the act of painting as something which gave him “the same kind of satisfaction that religion, I imagine, gives to some people.”  It was his “searching necessity,” and I suppose it is the spirit in which I write.  It doesn’t seem to matter which medium you choose.  Just get started with something.  Creativity breeds more creativity.  As soon as you succeed in conceptualizing and expressing one theme, you will find that the theme also serves as a lead, sending you on your way to read more, to learn more, to do more, about another aspect needing clarification.  Start small, and soon your particular works will begin to form to the boundaries out of which a larger picture can arise.  Once you are able to see that picture with greater clarity, your previous works can also serve as the raw material from which you may sculpt your meta-picture.  Repeat the process and learn just how far your ideas can propel you.

But the fact that today I still stand by these ideas, that in the intervening time they themselves have constantly become more strongly associated with one another, in fact, have grown into each other and intertwined, that reinforces in me the joyful confidence that they may not have originally developed in me as single, random, or sporadic ideas, but up out of a common root, out of some fundamental will for knowledge ruling from deep within, always speaking with greater clarity, always demanding greater clarity.  For that’s the only thing appropriate to a philosopher.  We have no right to be scattered in any way, we are not permitted to make isolated mistakes or to run into isolated truths.  By contrast, our ideals, our values, our affirmations and denials, our if’s and whether’s, grown out of us from the same necessity which makes a tree bears it’s fruit – totally related and interlinked amongst each other, witness of one will, one health, one soil, one sun.

-Nietzsche, from the Genealogy of Morals

I would change one thing about the quote from Nietzsche above, and that is, instead of saying that philosophers have no right to be scattered, I would say that a human being has no right to be scattered.  To exist scattered in the way Nietzsche uses the term is to lose part of ones humanity.  Everyone needs to discover their own “searching necessity,” and once you set foot on that path, it wouldn’t surprise me if you never watched another youtube video again.  Well, unless of course, you choose video as your means of creative expression, but that leads me to a whole other topic . . .

* It is also interesting to note that, if entropy is time’s arrow, then life strives in the opposite direction, towards the past. This is intuitively expressed by people everyday when they speak of their battle against time. But it is also interesting to consider this notion in relation to the mind specifically.  We are forever seeking explanations, attempting to find the origin of what exists. Thus, from the time of Plato, philosophers have been interested in the role of recollection and memory in the obtainment of knowledge.

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On mind and matter

A sketch to serve as a placeholder for my thoughts until I am able to carry out a more thorough examination . . .

Everyone, it seems, is a materialist today.  To even raise the question of mind and matter somehow seems quaint, of mere historical interest.  Few people would doubt that mental experiences arise from the underlying physical phenomenon of the brain. In fact, for most people, “mind” is synonymous with the brain.  But is this issue really as banal and irrelevant today as it might seem?

Sure, dualism of mind and matter, at least as it was originally formulated by Descartes and the occasionalists, is no longer a serious option. Yet there are some serious difficulties with the modern materialist/physicalist perspective.  These problems seem to me to fall into three main areas:  qualia, radical skepticism, and contradiction.

As the problem of qualia has become one of the more well-known argument against materialism, I will begin with it.  Qualia is, in short, a term for the characteristic of “what it’s like” to experience something. Qualia are generally considered to have four properties, first identified by the philosopher Daniel Dennett. They are ineffalbe (incapable of being communicated), intrinsic, private, and directly apprehensible to consciousness.  Probably the most often cited argument for the existence of qualia is Mary the color scientist. The basic idea is that, even if a color-blind person knew, theoretically, everything science could teach us about colors, she would still not know what it was like to experience, for example, redness.  Thus, there are some truths that cannot be accounted for by the physical or material.

The second problem is that materialism leads to the the kind of radical skepticism typified by the brain-in-a-vat problem.  If all of our mental experiences could be reduced to physical phenomenon, then there is no way to tell whether we are in fact, experiencing reality as it appears, or whether we are instead a disembodied brain connected to some supercomputer simulating our reality. The brain-in-a-vat scenario violates our common sense, which in and of-itself is a reason for rejecting it.  More interestingly, this illustrates how arguments against materialism tend to point towards arguments for the opposite extreme of idealism, or the position that the ultimate nature of reality is based on mind or ideas.  It is a short jump from the brain-in-a-vat argument to the argument that there is also no way to be sure of the reality of the brain itself.  That is, if the external world can not be known apart from our mental conception of it, how can we know that there is anything out there but our mental conceptions? In this way, mind and matter appear to form an antinomy, and there doesn’t seem to be any logical way of determining which of the two positions is the better one.   That leads me to the next, related, problem of the apparently contradictory aspects of mind and matter.

Mind and matter, in a lot of ways, appear to be mutually exclusive.  For example, common sense holds that our mental states are free in a way that physical states are not.  We assume that, even when we have no control over an event, we can at least choose the way we react to it. We take comfort in the fact, for example, that we can choose to make lemonade out of lemons, so to speak.  More generally, common sense allows for free will. Contrast this with our conception of physical events, which we conceive to be products of causal necessity, linked in a never-ending causal chain. In addition, there is the sense in which some, although not all, mental phenomenon have a timeless characteristic about them.  The intangibility of ideas, for example, leaves them immune to the deleterious effects of time.  They are eternal, whereas physical phenomenon are in a state of constant change and transformation.

These problems lead me to reject the simple materialist position as leading to an ultimate explanation of reality.  It seems to me that the physical and the mental are distinct and irreducible properties. Yet I am unable to fall back to dualism as an adequate explanation either, primarily because a dualist position leads to a subsequent problem as to how an interaction between mind and matter is possible.  Rather, I am inclined to adopt a dual-aspect monism.  I tend to believe that mental and the physical are like two sides of the same coin.  Or, a better analogy might be to the wave-particle duality of physics: sometimes the phenomenon of light is better understood as a wave, while at other times, it behaves more like a particle. Thus, unlike many materialists, I find a Kierkegaardian definition of human nature very appealing. Man is “a synthesis of the infinite and finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity.”  However, I understand this definition through the lens, not of dualism, but of dual-aspect monism.

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The Logic of Local Attractions

On a weekend trip to Riga, the capital of Latvia, my husband posed an amusing question.  ‘Why,’ he wondered, ‘did we bother taking the trip to Riga, when all there is to see are local attractions?’  ‘After all,’ he  continued, ‘we can see local attractions anywhere.’

His argument proved more difficult to refute than common sense says it should be, especially on a warm, lazy vacation day.  It seems to involve a play on words similar to the kind Lewis Carroll employed to great effect in Through the Looking Glass. For example, when Alice tells the White King that she sees “nobody” along the road, the King replies that he wishes his eyesight was as keen as Alice’s, for he can hardly see real people, much less “nobody.”  The king seems oblivious to the fact that “nobody” does not refer to any particular person, but instead, refers to the fact that there is no particular object in the relevant set of objects (here, people) which corresponds to a predicate (being located along the road).

My husband’s argument appears to exploit the same language feature.  The phrase “local attractions” is not itself a particular attraction or attractions, but instead the phrase refers to a set of objects which correspond to a predicate. Presumably, in this case, the predicate would be something like “located in the immediate vicinity of the main subject.”

Thus it appears that my husband is guilty of something like a confusion of  logical types.  His argument uses a term designating a set as if it was also a member of itself.

Let’s hope this refutation is sufficient to convince my husband to travel again!

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This picture my husband took of a sign in Riga may have very well inspired his topsy-turvy logic. The picture (possibly an illustration of Europa's abduction??) seems to depict an alternate world in which fish fly and birds swim.

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Romanian Nature

Last week we went to visit my husband’s parents in Beius, Romania, a relatively small town just across the Hungarian border, about a four hour drive from Budapest. Now, there are people I know who hate the outdoors – who, for example, refuse to go camping or anywhere without a full-size bed, private bathroom, and make-up, hair and personal care supplies. I was never one of those people, and must admit, I even felt some degree of pride in not being that bad. I always loved my version of “roughing it,” which usually consisted of camping, canoeing, and/or hiking trips. Sleeping bags, tents? No problem. Outhouses? I can deal with the smell. Western amenities? Don’t need them.

Or do I? See, every time we travel to Romania, I morph into that cliche, spoiled western girl that I had tricked myself into believing I wasn’t. First, my allergies kick in. In the United States and Sweden, where I live now, I hardly notice them anymore, but in Romania, no matter the season, my nose turns into a faucet and I can’t go anywhere without a package of tissues with me. When we visit my husband’s grandparents, who live in an even more remote, rural area than his parents, I am reduced to sitting in the house with a Kleenex held to my nose. Next, my husband or someone in his family will inevitably ask for the English word for any number of old, obscure gardening, needle/yarnwork, cooking or other tools, and my complete ignorance as to the work involved is betrayed by my answer: “I have no idea. I’ve never seen something like that before.” And let’s not forget the subtle glances exchanged when I try to politely decline or am simply unable to finish my serving of chicken or pig brain, liver, or heart, or react strangely when I’m told that the egg his grandmother is offering me is a delicacy because it was never laid, but rather an undeveloped egg found inside the hen when it was cut down. Once, on a trip to a neighboring city about an hours drive away, I suggested we try eating out at a restaurant. That suggestion was quickly declined, as they explained that restaurant food was over-priced and much, much worse than anything prepared at home by my mother-in-law. Then, there are the shocked gasps when I try to throw out, for example, milk that has been sitting out all day that my toddler son never drank. (My father-in-law stopped me, and then consumed the curdled milk the next day, explaining that it was no different than yogurt). And I swear my mother-in-law is silently reproaching me every time I get out of the shower for having consumed way too much hot water.  These are just a few of the stark cultural differences I was struck by before.

This visit I kept noticing how goal-directed my behavior was, and how this aspect seemed to have a surprising effect on my relationship to nature.  During our visit, I always wanted to know ‘what the plan was:’  where were we going, how long were we going to be there, etc.  I found myself getting quite impatient when I didn’t know the answers to these things, which was almost always.  I usually consider myself a flexible person, so I was surprised how much it bothered me to leave the house with only a very vague idea of what I would be doing or how long I would be gone.   For an example of a typical outing with my in-laws, consider what happened on the way home from our last visit to my husband’s grandparents.  First,  we stopped by a neighbors’  so my son could play with a particular dog which had run up to the car to greet us.   Then we realized we forgot my son’s  jacket, so we went back to get that, and once again stopped to see the dog. My father-in-law then spotted a tree along our route with some flowers that could be used to make a medicinal tea, so we stopped to pick some of the flowers.  Next we noticed an inch worm crawling slowly along the back of one of the seats, so my father-in-law again pulled over in order to release the inch worm back into the wild.  My husband saw a male pheasant, so my father-in-law stopped and we got out to take pictures.  He wanted to try to capture a picture of the bird in flight, so we did some pheasant chasing in an unsuccessful effort to scare it into flying.   A little later, we spotted a female pheasant, and again stopped.  Lastly we stopped to take some pictures of a sad looking Romanian flag with the one of the tricolors completely sheared off.  No one had bothered to replace it.  After about the third stop in the chain, I began to get impatient and wanted to get on home.  At the same time, I really admired the enthusiasm and almost insatiable sense of wonderment and curiosity so characteristic of my in-laws.

This experience had me wondering whether it might be possible to lose the ability to stop and smell the roses.  William James drew a famous distinction between directed attention and involuntary attention, or fascination.  Direct attention allows us to concentrate on task and goal oriented behavior, while involuntary attention results when we allow ourselves to be distracted by a bird chirping, twigs snapping, or the scent of jasmine in the air.  Much has been said recently about the negative effects of direct attentional fatigue, and the restorative effects of natural surroundings. I wondered, however, if it was possible to have the opposite problem, and whether a learned effectiveness at blocking out distractions over my lifetime had caused me to lose my naive ability to interact with nature.  That is, an interaction in which one follows nature wherever it might lead, as opposed to imposing upon it one’s own will and goal.

Just when I was beginning to admire the Romanian attitude towards nature, my husband inadvertently alerted  me  to a darker side. As we were admiring the strangely sole kitten his grandmother’s cat had just given birth to, he remarked that it was fortunate that the cat only had one kitten.  ‘Otherwise,’  he said, ‘they would have probably had to kill the others with a pitchfork.’  Needless to say, I was absolutely horrified by this statement.  It was incomprehensible to me why they wouldn’t have the cat spayed in the first place, give the unwanted kittens away, or as a last resort, at least use a more humane method of killing.   My husband’s reponse was simply ‘what can I say, nature is cruel.’

Then, as we were leaving, on our drive back to the airport in Budapest, we nearly ran into a horse standing there in the dark right in the middle of the road.  My father-in-law honked his horn, but he barely moved.  He appeared to have a lame leg, and his ribs were visible.  My husband commented that it was sad that, now that new EU regulations forbid horses and carts on the main roads, many farmers, no longer having any use for their horses, simply abandoned them to starvation.

Nature’s cruelty or man’s?  Or is there a difference?

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