Tag Archives: Heidegger

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.)

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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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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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Kierkegaard and Heidegger: Logicians?

Thoughts after reading Soren Kierkegaard’s The Sickness unto Death

The Sickness unto Death is the short (approx. 130 page) book in which the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard sets forth his famous definition of a self:  a synthesis of the psychical and the physical that relates itself to itself.  The merits of this classic philosophical work have, of course, already been proven by time.  I will not therefore attempt to catalogue its numerous strengths or presume to discuss its weaknesses.  Instead, by writing this review, I intend to point out a few of the things that I found most thought-provoking about the book in light of the philosophical development that has taken place after the book was published.

A human being is, according to Kierkegaard, “a synthesis of the infinite and finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity.”  A human being is not a self, however, until this psychical-physical synthesis relates itself to itself.  As is readily apparent, Kierkegaard does not shy away from paradox and self-reference.  In fact, it often seems as though he regards self-reference as having a significant role to play in the solution to various different forms of inevitable contradiction.  Contrast this to view of most logicians, who regard self-reference as a source of contradicton and paradox.   In fact, self-reference has in the past been regarded as such a problem-child that one of the most typical ways of dealing with it is, in effect, to disinherit it, and kick it out of logical systems entirely (e.g., Alonzo Church’s or Bertrand Russell’s theory of types).

Kierkegaard goes on to define “God” as “that everything is possible.”  He also states the definition in reverse, and notes “that everything is possible means the being of God.”  Further, he defines imagination as the “medium for the process of infinitzing.”  That is, it is not a particular type of “capacity,” but instead the “capacity instar omnium” (the capacity for all capacities).  Definitions like these leave one with the impression that The Sickness unto Death is the book that results when you attempt to apply logic to the human soul.  Such a description, however,  contains not a little bit of irony, as Kierkegaard himself  notoriously railed against attempts to “rationalize” Christianity.  Perhaps Kierkegaard would find enough humor in the irony to forgive my painting of him as a logician.

Here, as well as in Fear and Trembling and other books, Kierkegaard maintains his sharp distinction between the religious and the ethical (for him the stage governed by reason) by locating the religious in the realm of paradox and contradiction.  But today, logicians are more fascinated than ever by these very phenomenon, some even taking the view that true contradictions exist.  I wonder, if Kierkegaard were around today, would he consider himself a dialetheist?

Kierkegaard appears to have an clear grasp of different logical levels and what he refers to as the “chasmic qualitative abyss” between them.  He often even refers to God and man in precisely this sense, as “two qualities separated by an infinite qualitative difference.”   He also seems to possess a natural understanding with respect to how collisions between these logical levels lead to mind-bending paradoxes and contradictions.  This understanding is, to me, the most significant aspect of Kierkegaard’s work, and the key to understanding it.

This peculiar internal logic strikes me even more forcibly in the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who was largely influenced by Kierkegaard.  Heidegger is very obscure writer, and often different to read, but the difficultly is not the same as, for example, it is with the French post-modernists, who seem to write nonsense in some kind of an attempt to prove that everything is nonsense.  Rather, the difficulty with Heidegger is in the structure of his writing:  he also employs a lot of self-reference, and often lacks a vocabulary to reach the underlying level he attempts to explore.  Thus, he often stops to clarify that what he is saying does not “beg the question” or amount to a circular argument.  Usually, when at first glance he seems to be arguing in a circle, you come to realize that he is not, because he has switched to a different level, and is trying to explain a higher level in terms of one underlying it.  Strangely enough, I haven’t found any commentators discussing the structural aspect of Heidegger’s work, or Kierkegaard’s, for that matter.

In the early 20th century, the logician Bertrand Russell published a book explaining some of the more eccentric pieces of Leibniz’s philosohpy through the prism of the then recent developments in classical logic.  According to Russell, what might first appear as fantastical about Leibniz’s views, was actually the result of Leibniz’s strict application of the principles of logic as he understood at the time of his writing.   Unfortunately, Leibniz lacked the mathematical tools to formalize and clarify his expositions.

I am of the opinion that a similar exercise with respect to Kierkegaard and Heidegger would be a worthwhile pursuit.  That is, interpreting Kierkegaard and Heidegger through the lens of modern paraconsistent logic, would, I suspect, prove to be highly valuable.  After all, it often seems that the greatest advancements in thought are first arrived at intuitively, it is only much later that we have the tools available for formalization.

To the objection that a logical analysis of Kierkegaard’s work must necessarily take it out of the realm of the religious and away from God, contrary to Kierkegaard’s intent, I reply with Kierkegaard’s own words:  “to be able to be forward toward God, one has to go far away from hm.”

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On neuroenhancement

The New Yorker recently featured an article on so-called “neuro-enhancement” or “cosmetic neurology.” As the name suggests, neuro-enhancement refers to off-label use of stimulants usually prescribed to children and young adults for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. The article cited some alarming statistics. For example, at some universities, the number of undergraduates taking prescription stimulants for non-medical use reached up to twenty-five and even thirty-five percent. Average use was reported to be around 4.1 percent of students according to a study completed in 2005. The statistics suggest that pill-popping among college students in order to stay awake and focused is becoming about as “normal” and socially acceptable as drinking a cup of coffee. Why is that so disturbing?

There doesn’t seem to be much of a debate as to whether measures should be taken to stop this practice. Unlike the case in the sixties, when hallucinogens and other “mind-expanding” drugs were all the rage across college campuses, there is no “war” on this type of drug. Perhaps this is partly because the stimulants have a legitimate medical purpose, and are prescribed to treat a recognized psychiatric disorder. Most of the drugs that became popular in the sixties have no corresponding medical use, although, at least in the case of marijuana, some people might argue otherwise. But I think a more likely explanation for the relative complacency surrounding the stimulants has more to do with today’s efficiency driven culture. Unlike drug usage in the sixties, the drugs today are not being taken in the context of a counter-cultural movement. To the contrary, they are being used for the purpose of meeting or surpassing the very demands that we as a society, via educational institutions, employers, or other organizations, place on our youth.

In law school, we had a word for hyper-competitive, brown-nosing students. We called them gunners, and they were not liked. You know the type– the kind of student who would resort to misfiling the books in the library that everyone needed to use for the completion of an assignment, and other deceptive and off-putting behavior, just to give themselves a slight edge. In the end though, it was never the gunners who earned the highest grades and got the best jobs. In our first year, almost inevitably, the top grade in any given class went to an unassuming student that no one else had really paid much attention to before. Later of course, we did notice them, and knew exactly who was going to be at the top of our class. They were always the students that floated through seemingly effortlessly, supported by a natural, unquantifiable knack for the nuances of legal analysis. That’s not to say they didn’t work hard. Sometimes those with the most natural talent were also the least motivated, and those students ended up falling behind, and after an initial advantage, ended up about the same place in the class rankings as the gunners and others who, while maybe not as diabolically competitive as the gunners, worked extremely hard but simply lacked that innate ability that catapulted their peers to the top.

Why do I relate these observations about the old pecking order at my law school? Well, it struck me that the gunners are going to be among the early adopters for this new class of neuro-enhancing stimulants. Might this make them a little more effective in their quest for classroom dominance? If the statistics cited above are correct, and such a high percentage of students are taking these drugs, then it seems likely that this indeed might be the case. This is disconcerting to me because of the type of ability that this could potentially devalue and displace.

What does it mean to have a “natural” ability or knack for something? Although this manner of description comes quite “naturally” to us in common speech, it’s a concept that’s very difficult to pinpoint exactly. I venture to offer a few characteristics that people usually have if they are described as having a knack for something. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and reasonable people may well disagree with the importance that I assign to these two factors, but it seems to me that the advantages enjoyed by a person with a knack fall into two broad categories. First, there is a quickness factor. A person with a knack usually picks up the target skill very quickly. A corollary to this might be that such a person does not stand to benefit as much from additional exercises and practice sets designed to teach lower level aspects the person with the knack already understands. Second, the perspective of a person with a knack seems to differ from that of their peers. A person with a knack tends to have more insight into the “big picture,” and perhaps largely for that reason, it is usually the person with the knack that comes up with innovative new ideas.

Both of these characteristics – quickness and the tendency to have a better grasp of the whole – are intangible features that don’t lend themselves very well to quantification or scientific study. They are also features that don’t respond well to training and practice as means of improvement. Whether you “get it” or you don’t seems to be governed, not by conscious control, but largely by subconscious processes. In many respects, what we call natural ability overlaps with a concept cognitive neuroscientists call “automaticity,” or perhaps, it is better to say that people with a knack seem to be able to automatize difficult or complicated tasks more quickly than others. Neuroscientists categorize a set of skills as automatic if it is inevitably and incorrigibly executed given the relevant stimulus, and once executed, it does not consume cognitive capacity. That is, other tasks can be performed in parallel. Paradigmatic examples include reading or playing a piano sonata. In short, people with a knack are able to quickly automatize certain necessary skills, which then frees up cognitive resources for use in exploring a given subject more deeply, or simply from more of a meta-perspective.

So what happens if the gunners begin setting the pace? They lead us right into a Heideggerean nightmare: instead of using technology to take over the drudgery and the minutiae and leave us free to actualize those creative impulses that, perhaps even more than reason, set us apart from animals, we are using technology to enslave our minds. Sparks of inspiration don’t come when all cylinders are firing, when for example, we are frantically putting together that quarterly report for the boss by the end of the day. They are far more likely to come when the mind is free to wander: while we are taking a walk, sitting by the side of a pool, or relaxing in the evening before we head off to bed. Neuro-enhancers may lead to an amazing ability to churn out more reports, but they also have the effect of crowding out the possibility for inspiration and originality, leaving behind the slick outer shell of an over-polished, two-dimensional world. Ironically, it appears that the things we don’t have conscious control over might be the very things that set us apart as individuals, for it is our subconscious, automatic, instinctual behavior that frees up cognitive capacity and saves us from becoming automatons, mere cogs in a machine. Perhaps society would benefit more if the best students, instead of following the lead of the gunners, took the afternoon off to smoke a joint or experiment with LSD.

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