Philistinism and Philosophy

by Daniel A. Kaufman

Art is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress towards well-being of individuals and of humanity.

If men lacked this capacity of being infected by art, people might be more savage still, and above all, more separated from, and more hostile to, one another.

–Leo Tolstoy

Philistinism isn’t given any attention in philosophy today.  These are morally heady times in the profession, and many of our best and brightest are too busy manning the barricades of social justice to concern themselves with beauty, good taste, aesthetic refinement and the significance of culture more generally.  Of course, it’s not entirely clear that they would, even if they were somehow relieved of their great moral burdens – an overly excitable moral sense is one of philistinism’s sources – but I get ahead of myself.

The philistine is one who either refuses to engage with and appreciate the value of the arts, cuisine, and other exercises in human culture or is incapable of it.  His is a vice that knows no boundaries of education or class.  The rural, high-school educated, meat-and-potatoes type, who will never eat sfiha or sweetbreads or sushi may be a philistine, but so is the urban, higher educated, health-and-exercise-obsessed professional, who treats food as nothing more than fuel and whose kitchen resembles a medicine cabinet more than a place in which anything gastronomical occurs.  The shallow, money-focused investment banker who has no use for literature or essays is certainly a philistine, but so is the logic-and-science-fixated analytic philosopher who dismisses Confucius, Pico or Montaigne, because they aren’t “real philosophy.”

It’s all too easy today to dismiss philistinism as a serious concern, because it’s all too easy to dismiss the importance of the aesthetic to human life.  The reasons that people do this are many and complex, but it seems safe to say that philistinism thrives under a number of conditions, including: an undue focus on certain kinds of material well-being; an overactive moral sense; a failure to understand the role of arts and culture, beyond providing entertainment; an excessive and distorted regard for ratiocination and ratiocinative values, of which an excessive and distorted regard for science and scientific methods is perhaps the most common example.  Undoubtedly, there are more, but these are the ones that immediately come to mind.

Our engagement with the visual and performing arts, music, literature, and cuisine deepen our lived experience, while also expanding our capacity for it.  The sensibility and palate, like the intellect, are developed, expanded, and refined through use and by “stretching” them.  The man who in childhood would eat only processed, American cheese and refuses to try any other kind as an adult will have a narrower, less developed palate than someone who not only tries new cheeses, but more “difficult” ones – soft; pungent; ripened – that challenge and stretch his capacity to taste and to appreciate.  The woman who has had little to no engagement with music and the visual arts – for whom Bach and Brahms and Botticelli and Beckmann and Braque mean nothing – will have a more limited experience of and appreciation for beauty and pathos than one whose life has been infused with and enriched by the works of these and other great masters.  And the person who has developed no interest in or appreciation for literature or humane letters – who has never engaged with Augustine’s Confessions, Montaigne’s Essays, Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, or Joyce’s, Kafka’s or Faulkner’s novels – will have a more contracted, impoverished view of the human condition than the person who has.

To limit one’s own experience in this way, consequently, is also to close oneself to other people, as the arts and cuisine and other forms of human culture are the chief means by which people around the world have expressed themselves and shared their experiences for the entire course of recorded history.  It’s always lamentable when such closing occurs unwittingly, because of unfortunate circumstances of family or birthplace or material circumstances, but it’s much worse when it is done on purpose, and even more so, when done purportedly for the sake of one’s own well-being and virtue.  The latter, of course, is little more than a cruel joke, as if virtue could be obtained from contracting one’s sensibility, rather than expanding it, or well-being could be achieved by neglecting oneself, as a person, in the service of a compulsive, morbid attention to one’s material condition.

Among professional academics, analytic philosophers – of which I am one – are among the most susceptible to the more intellectual, rarefied forms of philistinism.  It is analytic philosophers, after all, who are among the most likely to forget that ethical concern is an expression of our humanity, not some neutral, abstractly conceived system hanging above it, which is why some of our most prominent ethicists – Peter Singer comes immediately to mind – are proud advocates for philistinism, with regard to arts and cuisine.  (Beyond the culinary philistinism born of his ethical outlook, Singer has publicly advocated against supporting museums, and his brand of utilitarianism will always entail the elevation of material concerns over all others. (1))  It is analytic philosophers who are inclined to dismiss the significance of the historical and literary dimension of their own discipline, in favor of entirely logically and scientifically-oriented investigations, the smallness and barrenness of which are largely to blame for analytic philosophy’s increasingly marginal character in the academy and the larger world.  And it is analytic philosophers who, in their embrace of reductive and eliminative materialisms, demonstrate that they do not understand that we are not simply organic machines, operating under mechanistic principles, but people – members of families; friends; neighbors; bearers of ethnic and religious identities; and citizens of nations – who live and act within the irreducible, ineliminable space of representations and reasons that Wilfrid Sellars called the “Manifest Image.” (2)

Arts and culture are the most complex, most customizable and thus, most expressively rich frameworks through which we represent the world and thereby, develop and express the points of view that ground the Manifest Image.  Given that representation is at the root of all valuation, positive and negative, and thus of all action (in contrast with mere motor movement), it is what grounds ethics and law and social, civic and political life, which is why the question of the development of our representational capacity is an absolutely crucial one.  The philistine is one in whom this capacity is the least developed and crudest, and this can only undermine his ability to engage with others in the forms of life in which we all participate.  Of course, this does not mean that the philistine necessarily will fail in his social and civic endeavors or, for that matter, that the properly acculturated and aesthetically developed person always will succeed.  It does mean, however, that philistinism will always count against one’s best efforts to be engaged with other people and that a well- and richly-developed sensibility will always count in favor of them, and it is for this reason that the matter should be of substantial concern to academics and “lay” people alike.

Notes

1.  https://bloggingheads.tv/videos/35143

2.  http://meaningoflife.tv/videos/38394

http://selfpace.uconn.edu/class/percep/SellarsPhilSciImage.pdf

53 Comments »

  1. ” Given that representation is at the root of all valuation, positive and negative, and thus of all action (in contrast with mere motor movement), it is what grounds ethics and law and social, civic and political life, which is why the question of the development of our representational capacity is an absolutely crucial one.”

    Things just aren’t that neat. We’ve all read about SS men who listened to Bach and Beethoven after a hard day exterminating Jews. I spent 11 years in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship, tutoring people in English and doing some human rights work too. I met countless lovers of the fine arts, of the opera, of classical music who supported the Pinochet dictatorship, and a goodly number of people without any background in high culture who risked their lives to end up.

    In fact, appreciation of the art has to do with the cultural background one is brought up in. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has studied that in detail, showing that a sociologist can predict one’s tastes in music with a surprising degree of accuracy simply by knowing how much education one has and how much one earns. I myself had a middle class upbringing in a home where my mother played classical piano and no one should be surprised that I am fairly knowledgeable about and listen to classical music. At this moment I am listening to Handel Messiah, which I do every Christmas eve. Otherwise, I boycott Christmas.

    I’m not at all sure that there is any correlation between one’s appreciation of the arts and what kind of person one is. It would be nice if art made you a better person, but I’m not sure that that is the case.

    Like

    • We’ve all read about SS men who listened to Bach and Beethoven after a hard day exterminating Jews.

      = = =

      Um, I specifically spoke to this in the last paragraph, so it really doesn’t constitute any sort of objection to what I’ve said.

      Look, we already know that you don’t agree with this point of view, from my last piece. Is there really a point at bashing at it all over again? I agree with Tolstoy. You don’t. There it is.

      Like

    • I also indicated quite clearly that philistinism knows neither the bounds of class or education, which renders virtually all of the rest of your criticisms moot.. Apparently, you need to read a bit more carefully.

      Like

  2. I’m afraid that among the regular contributors here I would rank pretty low on my knowledge of the fine arts and literature and I am sure that I am impoverished to some degree because of this . On the other hand my childhood included direct engagement in a pretty wide variety of subcultures ( e.g. inner city basketball, rural dairy and vegetable farm,hippy culture, hunting culture ), and I always have had a love of music and movement arts.

    In my young adulthood I added an exploration Chinese medicine/movement arts and more recently have tried extend my capacity in philosophy. I’m still pretty ignorant with regard to fine arts ( sculpture, painting, etc..) and not so good on literature or cuisine either.

    I agree with the general statement of the essay. It is hard to argue that we are not a culture obsessed with self definition or branding which often seems either purity based based on the worship of money and success. I also agree that the more narrow our identity becomes, the more we exclude and paradoxically the we actualize who we might become.

    Dan – I am slightly confused about the use of the term ‘representation’ in this essay. Would the capacity to hear and enjoy many different types of music ( say Lucinda Williams to Eric Dolphy to Sibelius ) simply from doing a lot of listening (not studying music theory ) suggest an increased capacity to represent these art forms? I think have
    misunderstood the formal meaning of the term.

    Thanks

    Like

    • seth: Arts and Letters provide us with new and refined points of view/ways of experiencing things. They teach us to see with many different eyes, hear with many different ears, etc., and in a deeper more refined way.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Dan

    I can agree with much of what you say here. But not with everything.

    “… And it is analytic philosophers who, in their embrace of reductive and eliminative materialisms, demonstrate that they do not understand that we are not simply organic machines, operating under mechanistic principles, but people – members of families; friends; neighbors; bearers of ethnic and religious identities; and citizens of nations – who live and act within the irreducible, ineliminable space of representations and reasons that Wilfrid Sellars called the “Manifest Image.” ”

    You are talking about a specific group (analytic philosophers). But the phrasing seems to suggest that anyone who embraces reductionism in science is committed to saying that we, as “organic machines” as you put it, cannot also be *people* with familial and cultural identities etc.. Are you suggesting this? If so, I strongly disagree.

    Like

    • Mark: Yes, I am saying that. Reductive physicalism is inconsistent with the autonomy of the social sciences as well as with any real commitment to persons and their distinctive characteristics.

      This is just a specific instance of the fact that the Manifest Image can neither be reduced to, nor replaced by the Scientific Image, as Sellars quite clearly demonstrates.

      Of course, none of this entails or presupposes any sort of substance dualism.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Nicely written and point well made.

    I’ve noted before that the main reason literaturists in the academy became fascinated with Continental or Phenomenological philosophy toward the end of the 20th Century, was because literature mattered in Phenomenological philosophy, while being largely ignored by Analytic philosophy, after it had abandoned Pragmatism. The New Critics, which had been influenced by a somewhat positivistic reading of Pragmatism, were also under the sway of the Romantic ideology of the Great Poet as Legislator to the World, and so devoted the study of literature to interpretating lesson-filled ‘meanings’ in the text. That was quite useful for many decades, but by the early Seventies, the Great Poet theory was getting torn apart by psychologists and Structuralists, and, anyway, pretty much all that could be said about the texts of the New Critical canon had been said, at least as far as using the New Critical methodology was concerned. But there was no way to apply any of the methods of the Logical Positivists or their heirs to any literary concerns, and. anyway, the Logical Positivists had long maintained that human culture wasn’t worth discussing philosophically. The Logical Positivists actually were assuming a culture – that of Britain, or of an America inheriting the culture of Britain – and also assumed that the common language of this culture was understood by all and didn’t need to be analyzed; but, being unanalyzed, it was useless for ‘scientific’ purposes. So, literaturists found their way to philosophers who seemed concerned about how literature shapes our social reality, and most of these spoke French. Whatever problems caused by the popularity or Post-Structuralisms among American intellectuals, part of the responsibility for these must be held to the Analytic account. All they could scream at Postructuralisms were that they were nonsense – but their Logical Positivist predescessors had said much the same about literature itself.

    Could the Analytic tradition have developed more to say about literature and the arts? I don’t know. Can they yet address such concerns? I don’t know that either. However faith that Cognitive Science and Neurscience will find the oprecise location in the brain that responds positively to Shakespearean sonnets sems somehow misguided.

    Now, on a more personal note: I had an emotionally empty childhood – discarded by one parent, ignored by the other, with sisters making it clear they didn’t care for me at all, bounced into a neighborhood where we were not wanted and so finding myself for long periods friendless… I don’t know how I would have ended up if I hadn’t discovered literature at an early age. James Fenimore Cooper and Mark Twain taught me American history; Mickey Spillane and Ian Fleming showed me the world I was actually living in – poor teachers, I admit, and hardly ‘Literature,’ but certainly more educational than “The Beverly Hillbillies.” My ethics I learned from Homer, my confrontation with the problems of ambition, and loss, mistaken judgment and despair, I learned from MacBeth. All this before I was 14. I was very ‘bookish,’ perhaps too bookish. I would retreat into my room for endless hours with books of every description, but primarily fiction. By the time I at last experienced real friendship, in senior highschool, I knew something about the world. And by having to negotiate the differences in attitudes and general outlook on life among the different authors I read, I knew also that the world was not simply a single culture with a homogenous population, but that it was something of a mess – filled with a host of peoples of varied backgrounds and values – to be wrestled with and negotiated with – to be discovered.

    I didn’t become a ‘better person’ because of my literary experiences – I became a person at all because of them.

    The world is to a large extent the stories we tell of it; we are to a large extent the stories we tell about ourselves. They may be on some level entirely fictional; but they are yet the facts we live by – at least until a better story is told.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. It is commonly supposed that what makes us unique as a species is our intellect. But we are not clever automatons. We are instead an endlessly creative species and culture is the expression of this creativity. By taking part in and contributing to our culture we are celebrating what is most essential and unique about our species, our creativity. It enriches us and expands us, but more than that, it connects us into a larger, synergistic whole. EJ’s moving description of his youth illustrates perfectly how he found connections and meaning through culture, despite the emotional isolation imposed by his upbringing.

    Like

  6. Dan

    “Reductive physicalism is inconsistent with the autonomy of the social sciences as well as with any real commitment to persons and their distinctive characteristics.”

    On the first claim, I would need to refresh my memory on the key elements of the debate about levels of explanation and so on but there obviously *are* levels (and different types) of explanation.

    The second claim I don’t accept. A commitment to reductionism in science is *not* inconsistent in my view with a “commitment to persons and their distinctive characteristics.”

    Those “organic machines” you speak of are people *because of social and cultural interaction*. Nobody is denying the existence of social interaction (which as I see it is the source of personhood and values).

    Sure, there *are* those who want to reinterpret the manifest image in scientific terms, but I would tend to agree with you (and Sellars) that “… the Manifest Image can neither be reduced to, nor replaced by the Scientific Image.”

    There is, nonetheless, a tension between the two.

    Sellars writes: “I [might] seem … to be saying that man’s conception of himself in the world does not easily accommodate the scientific image; that there is a genuine tension between them; that man is not the sort of thing he conceives himself to be; that his existence is in some measure built around error. If this were what I wished to say, I would be in distinguished company. One thinks, for example, of Spinoza, who contrasted man as he falsely conceives himself to be with man as he discovers himself to be in the scientific enterprise. It might well be said that Spinoza drew a distinction between a ‘manifest’ and a ‘scientific’ image of man, rejecting the former as false and accepting the latter
    as true. But if in Spinoza’s account, the scientific image, as he interprets it dominates the stereoscopic view (the manifest image appearing as a tracery of explainable error), the very fact that I use the analogy of stereoscopic vision implies that as I see it the manifest image is not overwhelmed in the synthesis.”

    Nonetheless there is a tension, I would say, which cannot be wished away.

    I am quite open to the notion of “man-in-the-world” which Sellars talks about. I see this more naturally in Heideggerian than Sellarsian terms, but there is obvious overlap between the two approaches.

    If I am not mistaken, temperamental factors are playing a role here. This, I suspect, is unavoidable. For example, I confess to having a certain sympathy with and affinity for Spinoza’s way of seeing things.

    But I would certainly not go as far as rejecting as false the manifest image. It is more a matter of one eye dominating in the stereoscopic contest. Actually I am uncomfortable with the metaphor of stereoscopic vision. I would simply say that there is and always will be a tension between if you like a ‘natural’ (for us) and a scientific (decidedly unnatural for most of us) way of seeing the world. A perfect balance is in practice impossible. Some lean one way, some lean another. Some alternate.

    Like

  7. Mark –

    Your last few paragraph’s has me wondering what you are really saying. Surely when you see or touch a rock you don’t see or feel the empty space between the atoms. When you feel an emotion you aren’t experiencing the flickering of your neurons or the movement of neurotransmitters. These experiences are compatible with the scientific descriptions. It seems to me there is only a tension if we insist on reducing our lived experience to the level of scientific description.

    Like

  8. Mark,
    Those “organic machines” you speak of are people *because of social and cultural interaction*.

    Your phrase “because of” glides effortlessly over a vast explanatory gap. It is a circular argument because you are assuming the result “social and cultural interaction” to be the cause.

    You emphasise this in your following statement:

    Nobody is denying the existence of social interaction (which as I see it is the source of personhood and values).

    But what is the source of social interaction, if not personhood?

    Like

  9. “Reductive physicalism is inconsistent with the autonomy of the social sciences as well as with any real commitment to persons and their distinctive characteristics.”

    I would go further and say that reductive physicalism is is inconsistent with the autonomy of people. We are completely and flatly unable to show how reductive machines can be capable of autonomy of will and intent. It has never been shown but it has, in an extraordinary intellectual sleight of hand, become an academic article of faith.

    Like

  10. The world is to a large extent the stories we tell of it; we are to a large extent the stories we tell about ourselves. They may be on some level entirely fictional; but they are yet the facts we live by – at least until a better story is told.

    This statement resonates strongly with me. We make sense of the world by creating narratives. These narratives contain our values, hopes and aspirations. We use narratives to communicate some sense of our inner world to other people. The narratives of others enrich our own inner world.

    But, with the scientific revolution there was born a new kind of narrative. This narrative was anchored in three things:
    1) empiricism, which tied the narrative down to observations of physical fact;
    2) the belief in an absolute, underlying system of cause and effect that we call the laws of nature;
    3) the predictive value of this system of cause and effect, the laws of nature.

    These narratives were
    1) easily shared;
    2) verifiable, and
    3) productive.

    Consequently and inevitably the scientific narrative has become dominant. But the dominance of the scientific narrative does not, of itself, necessarily invalidate the manifest narrative.

    Reductive physicalists maintain that it does, because this is all there is. There are just a fixed number of particles(10^80) and fields arranged in various degrees of complexity according to immutable laws of nature.

    But here is the strange thing. Though the number of particles in the Universe is fixed, the number of ideas are not fixed. There is no necessary limit to the number of ideas we can create. Our creativity is seemingly unlimited. That is because ideas are independent of the means we use to represent them. Thus the same idea can be expressed in a great number of fonts, on a great number of media. The arrangement of particles in no ways limit the number of ideas that can be created.

    Now, if reductive physicalism were true this could not occur. But it does occur therefore reductive physicalism cannot be true.

    Like

  11. Robin,

    > I wonder if anyone was called a philistine for neglecting the works of Dolly Parton.

    When I was young, I believed that people who appreciated Dolly were philistines. Now I think people who neglect her are philistines.

    What philistines have in common, in my experience, is that they think art is some “pushing the right buttons” phenomenon. They think people like a piece because the artist somehow succeeded in pushing the right buttons and producing the desired effects. As if we are a piano that is played by the artist.

    They are wrong. One of my ex-colleagues was an esteemed theater critic, and what struck me is that he didn’t only like *good* theater. He could just as well enjoy a fabulous version of “Joko fête son anniversaire” (Topor) as a Feydeau piece played by an amateur company, with lots of “Ciel! Mon mari!” moments. Given the choice, he’d rather go to a good Publikumsbeschimpfung (Peter Handke), but he didn’t go to a performance for that delicious feeling that his buttons were played the right way. He liked *theater*, full stop.

    There’s a biography of Shostakovich by Solomon Volkov. The authenticity is heavily disputed, but it has a nice passage when (according to Volkov) Dmitri admits he not only admires Bach, but can appreciate a good Offenbach too. Whatever you think about Shostakovich, a philistine he wasn’t.

    Like

  12. Jerry M Burger deals extensively with our need for autonomy and control over our lives. In his book, ‘Desire for Control, Personality,
    Clinical and Social Perspectives
    ‘ he outlines the main schools of thought(Adler, White, DeCharms, Deci and Bandura)

    Among the first to discuss this concept[]control over the events in one’s life was Alfred Adler, who identified what he called a striving for superiority as the primary human motive (Adler, 1930; Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956).

    White proposed that many human behaviors could be best understood in terms of what he identified as competence or effectance motivation. He argued that young children do not explore and manipulate objects because this behavior satisfies some primary need, but rather because the behavior “satisfies an intrinsic need to deal with the environment.”

    “Effectance motivation is persistent,” White wrote. “It regularly occupies the spare waking time between episodes of homeostatic crisis” (p. 322). Thus, unlike Adler, White maintained that exercising control over the obstacles and challenges in one’ s environment is satisfying in its own right.

    Like many motives identified and explored by researchers, achievement motivation can be conceived of in terms of a larger motivation construct. DeCharms identified this larger construct as “the desire to be master of one’s fate.” Thus, deCharms appears to be describing a motivation to exercise effective control over what happens to us “Man strives to be a causal agent,” he wrote. ”To be the primary locus of causation for, or the origin of, his behavior; he strives for personal causation” (p. 269). According to this viewpoint, exercising control is more than satisfying in itself. The need to control one’ s world underlies many of the behaviors and motives examined by psychologists.

    Deci (1975) originally described these internal sources of motivation in terms of demonstrating one’ s mastery and competence. Like White and deCharms, he argued that people work on tasks not only because they might receive some sort of payment or interpersonal gain, but many times because they want to demonstrate to themselves that they are capable of effectively exercising control over their environments.

    Finally, Albert Bandura (1977, 1986) has promoted a concept he labels selt-efficacy. According to this approach, we can understand behavior change by examining the extent to which people expect that they are capable of performing the behaviors required to reach their goals. That is, how strongly we believe we can control events determines how much effort we put into change and how long these efforts persist. Bandura (1977) draws a distinction between self-efficacy and White’ s effectance motivation, painting se1f-efficacy in cognitive rather than drive terms. According to Bandura, it is the expectation of personal control that underlies the motivation behind many behaviors, rather than a need to demonstrate mastery.

    As DeCharms said
    Man strives to be a causal agent,” he wrote. ”To be the primary locus of causation for, or the origin of, his behavior; he strives for personal causation

    And we are causal agents. Causal agency is inexplicable in a world of reductive physicalism where cause and effect operate inexorably according to immutable laws of nature. Reductive physicalist have no option but to deny our causal agency if they wish to preserve their ‘faith’ in their ‘belief system’. But their faith flies in the face of the facts, which is ironic when their main claim to fame is based on adherence to facts.

    Like

  13. Dan,

    As you are no doubt aware, the term came into disrepute precisely because people used it to lift certain kinds of art above others.

    I recall the way we used the term in my youth, for example my 8 year old sister would be practicing her piano and I would yell out jokingly “cut that racket out” and she would yell back “Philistine!”.

    And this is not to take away from your point, just to highlight how the term became devalued through being used in an elitist way.

    Like

  14. Seth

    “Surely when you see or touch a rock you don’t see or feel the empty space between the atoms.”

    The perception is very much a reflection of our sensory capacities. The qualities/aspects of the rock our casual perceptions of it pick up are limited and “slanted” from a scientific point of view. The first step in the process of scientific thinking involves making as complete a description of the thing our perceptions reveal as possible. This involves discipline and training. And as science develops we get a fuller picture which is often somewhat at odds with an intuitive view. E.g. think of flowers. We see only a certain range of colors. Bees see colors we don’t see.

    “When you feel an emotion you aren’t experiencing the flickering of your neurons or the movement of neurotransmitters.”

    Say you suffer from anxiety. It helps to understand how the brain generates fear and anxiety and how the layers responsible for dampening down those constant amygdala danger signals so that they don’t reach consciousness can fail to adequately do their job.

    “[Ordinary] experiences are compatible with the scientific descriptions. It seems to me there is only a tension if we insist on reducing our lived experience to the level of scientific description.”

    They are compatible, certainly, but I still think it makes sense to talk about a tension between them.

    Like

  15. Thanks Dan – I get that we can refine/cultivate our capacity to perceive the world in ways we could not prior to the cultivation. I think of representation as implying a screen or a zone of interpretation of abstractions distinct or separate in someway from direct experience. Seeing with new eyes, hearing with new ears etc…- once a capacity has been cultivated – feels to me like a more direct engagement than what I associated with the term representation. That’s why I asked.

    Is this a difference between knowledge practices that depend on abstract conceptions and physical skill practices. I’m think at the moment of juggling and how the pattern slows down and becomes visible as competency emerges at various levels ( 3,4,5 or more balls ) . Would for example, masterful comprehension of beautiful poem involve representation while juggling 7 balls would not. And where would you place the capacity to engage with both punk rock and classical music on this continuum if there is a continuum with respect to the use of representations.

    Anyway that was my confusion – no pressure to clear up my confusions, this is a bit off the main point of the essay which was clear enough despite my lack of clarity on this point.

    Like

  16. Labnut

    “But what is the source of social interaction, if not personhood?”

    To talk in human terms about social interaction could be seen to assume personhood. But we also talk about social animals and even insects.

    I see personhood as arising in a context of human social and cultural interaction and, in evolutionary and ontogenetic terms, in effect *being created by* this social and cultural interaction. (I know you profoundly disagree with this view.)

    Like

  17. Seth

    I see that I may have slightly misread your comment to me, and I’m sorry if the first part of my response sounds a bit pedantic and condescending. I was just trying to explain how I see scientific thinking as developing from ordinary thinking. Tensions arise in the sense that a scientific view is often at odds with an intuitive view of things.

    Like

  18. Mark,
    But we also talk about social animals and even insects.

    That is not the same thing at all. It is programmed whereas ours is
    1) the choice of an autonomous agent
    2) done in full recognition of and because of the personhood of the other.

    Unlike social animals, we are intently and reflectively aware of our inner lives and recognise that others possess the same inner lives. Our social lives are in effect the touching and co-mingling of our inner lives. The depth of the co-mingling reflects the depth of the relationship.

    Social animals cannot experience the co-mingling of their social lives because they lack the semantic machinery to communicate their inner lives.

    Like

  19. Oops
    Social animals cannot experience the co-mingling of their social lives

    that should be
    Social animals cannot experience the co-mingling of their inner lives

    Like

  20. Thanks for the replies Mark,

    I’ll make one more comment since it is getting a bit off the original track. I had a neuroscience phase. I read Damasio, Gazziniga, LeDoux & Ramachandran. I read up on split brains & left brain interpreters/confabulators, and on default networks and its overactivity in relation to different mental issues and brain area 25 in relation to depression. I read on dopamine reward pathways, and executive control, and on conditions like anosognosia & Capras syndrome, and on the libet experiments, and on the cerebellum and basal ganglia in relation to skilled movement. Much of was very interesting and informative to the way I reflected on my ordinary experience, but it never really felt at odds to my ordinary experience any more than a physical description of a rock as being comprised of mostly empty space changes my real life connection to it as a solid object.

    Like

  21. Labnut

    I think you would be surprised at how much if your social life is automatic and unconscious. I don’t have these mechanisms and had to learn them consciously, to the limited extent you can do these things consciously.

    I don’t think that most people are aware of the extent that their social exchanges are carried out by body language, facial expression and intonation and the extent they are processing this information below the level of awareness.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Seth

    As you say, this takes us away from the main discussion.

    “I had a neuroscience phase… Much of it was very interesting and informative to the way I reflected on my ordinary experience, but it never really felt at odds to my ordinary experience any more than a physical description of a rock as being comprised of mostly empty space changes my real life connection to it as a solid object.”

    Yes I realized that’s what you were saying after I wrote my first response. I must say that my experience of reading that same material was slightly different from yours, though you do say it changed the way you “reflected on” your experience.

    Some of the results were counterintuitive (thus the “tension” I spoke of: that’s all I meant really). And reading this material changed the way I see myself and others and so changed the way I experience the world in significant ways.

    The split brain/confabulation material was especially notable, I thought. But even knowing simple facts about how our eyes and visual processing systems work (filling in gaps in the “picture” and so on) changes our experience also, I would have thought, at least in subtle ways. (We become less trusting of what we “see” when we realize that our visual systems are generating a picture rather than operating as a camera does.)

    Like

  23. Labnut

    “[Quoting me] “But we also talk about social animals and even insects.”

    That is not the same thing at all.”

    I know! That’s what I was saying. I was saying we use the word ‘social’ in different contexts in different ways. Sometimes it implies persons, sometimes not.

    On the broader point I agree with Robin. (I seem to recall you reject the unconscious.)

    Like

  24. Sethleon2015

    I read on dopamine reward pathways, and executive control, and on conditions like anosognosia & Capras syndrome, and on the libet experiments, and on the cerebellum and basal ganglia in relation to skilled movement. Much of was very interesting and informative to the way I reflected on my ordinary experience, but it never really felt at odds to my ordinary experience any more than a physical description of a rock as being comprised of mostly empty space changes my real life connection to it as a solid object.

    It can strike people in different ways. On learning that a tiny injury, much smaller than a paper cut, might disrupt a certain pathway in my brain and as a result I might stop caring about my kids, it did give me pause to think. The thing that is most important to me in life might become unimportant as a result of a tiny change in my brain. And I only have that pathway because once, a long time ago in a vanished landscape, it resulted in the increase the predominance of a certain pattern over another in a certain molecule.

    It did make me think about what it means to love someone. Maybe, if I incurred that tiny injury, I might even be grateful that I no longer had that signal going to that reward centre. After all, if that pathway was the only reason I was caring, then I would have no reason to want the pathway restored.

    But then again it also makes me think differently about a rock when I hold it up and realise that there is nothing that the other side of this rock looks like, because there is no one looking at it. I have absolute zero knowledge about the hidden surface of that rock, even though I know what it will look like once I turn that face towards me.

    Like

  25. Robin,
    It can strike people in different ways. On learning that a tiny injury, much smaller than a paper cut, might disrupt a certain pathway in my brain and as a result I might stop caring about my kids

    It is increasingly fashionable to think we are only our brain. Why? Well the alternative does not bear thinking about for good card bearing materialists.

    My dogs are only their brain. Every new dog of mine has reliably lifted his leg against lampposts, without examples or training to guide him. They act dependably and reliably according to instincts refined over a great number of years of evolution.

    We also were like that until something strange happened in our brain, about 60,000 years ago, giving us the ability to refashion ourselves without reshaping our brain. Thus we became more than our brain. In fact we became much, much more than our brain.

    But these profound new abilities were still hosted by the old brain. Thus we are a hybrid but the important part of us is not the old brain but the new mind. The brain cannot defy evolution but the mind is breaking free from evolution. We don’t know what started this and we don’t know how it works because the mind is opaque to science.

    The explanation for the mind cannot be found by examining the brain because that is examining the wrong thing. The explanation can only be found by examining the mind itself but science has no way of doing this.

    So science examines the brain, and unsurprisingly find many aspects of our behaviour are determined by the brain. We are after all a hybrid of the old brain and the new mind. The mistake is to think that examining the old brain will explain the new mind.

    Like

  26. This also relevant
    https://news.nd.edu/news/philosophers-awarded-templeton-foundation-grant-to-explore-the-nature-of-the-self/

    cutting-edge research related to the question, “How can we understand and make sense of the narrative conceptions of the self?”

    Scholars who defend the narrative conception theory argue that — given the way the brain processes experiences and strings together episodic memories — perhaps the resultant narrative is, actually, wholly constitutive of the self.

    The skeptics’ rejoinder, Rea said, is, “What kind of thing is it that creates itself?”

    That really is the key question, how is that possible?

    The brain does not create itself but the mind can create, re-create and extend itself. Particles and fields cannot create new particles and fields but the mind can create something new. This is something astonishing. We are living in a miracle but because we live in it we are blasé about it, seeing it as ordinary and inevitable.

    Like

  27. Labnut

    But I didn’t say we were our brains.

    I said that a tiny injury, much smaller than a paper cut could make the thing that is most important to me completely unimportant. I said that this fact makes me think about what it means to love someone.

    I had thought of love which “bears it out, even to the edge of doom”, but apparently something much smaller than a pin prick can completely demolish it.

    The question of whether we are our brains is semantics and not relevant to my point.

    Like

  28. Robin:

    1. I have no idea what any of this has to do with the essay, which is what the discussion thread is supposed to be about.

    2. I don’t get the relevance of your point. If you were never born you also wouldn’t have loved your kids. Indeed, there are infinitely many “ifs” that would have this consequence. I see nothing interesting that comes from the point.

    Like

  29. Dan-K,
    Labnut: ?? I was agreeing with you.

    My apologies. There is only one way to understand but many ways to misunderstand so the stats worked against me.

    Liked by 1 person

  30. Back to philistinism.

    We are commonly defined as a tool using species. Robert Ardrey instead defined us as a weapon using species. Peter Singer would approve of these utilitarian definitions.

    But these definitions miss something rather profound, and that is our endless creativity. I instead claim that we are a creative species, that our defining characteristic is our creativity. Paired to our creativity is our capacity for great love. We love the excellent, we love the true, the good and the beautiful in our creative endeavours.

    The philistine is one who lacks this love. He pursues form without feeling. Lacking the love he is not motivated to develop his appreciation of the excellent, true, good and beautiful. And this shows in the shallowness of his judgements and the triviality of his choices.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Labnut: I like this way of putting things. Especially the connection with the love for the true, the good and the beautiful. Indeed, this trio is at the heart of the great Jewish Enlightenment philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn’s philosophy.

      Liked by 2 people

  31. Dan

    There were three other people engaged in that thread of conversation and I didn’t bring it up, I only chimed in late in the stage.

    If you felt it was irrelevant why did you single me out to say so?

    In any case you may have mixed me up with someone else, because I never said anything about never being born.

    Like

  32. This is a perfect piece to read in the new year. About four or five years ago I wrote an essay called The New Philistinism, in which I argued that if in the past philistinism consisted of the old “my five year old kid could do that” being said in front of Pollack, the new philistinism consisted of dismissing, say, Norman Lear, or, for that matter Dolly Parton, on grounds that it was corrupted or corrupting and the like. What all varieties of philistinism have in common is a rejection of some kind of intrinsic quality of culture itself in favor of its utility value, say, is it ennobling or lead to a better world, or is it sufficiently entertaining or accessible and so on.

    Like

  33. it seems safe to say that philistinism thrives under a number of conditions, including: an undue focus on certain kinds of material well-being; an overactive moral sense; a failure to understand the role of arts and culture, beyond providing entertainment; an excessive and distorted regard for ratiocination and ratiocinative values, of which an excessive and distorted regard for science and scientific methods is perhaps the most common example.

    These are all good reasons for the growth of, indeed dominance of philistinism. But the list left me searching for more, some kind of underlying explanation.

    This brings me back to my earlier quote from JM Burger, quoting DeCharms:

    Man strives to be a causal agent,” he wrote. ”To be the primary locus of causation for, or the origin of, his behavior; he strives for personal causation

    In the search for personal causation we developed tools of ever increasing power and complexity. We used these tools to
    1) subdue the environment and direct it towards the satisfaction of our needs;
    2) to subdue others for the satisfaction of our needs; and
    3) we used these tools for creative purposes, in the broader sense of creative.
    In these three ways our tools multiplied our capacity for personal causation. We used this capacity for good and bad but it has also resulted in an enduring creative output that has deeply enriched our species by connecting us in new and richer ways.

    But that is changing.

    1) We have fallen in love with our tools and have become intoxicated by the easy satisfaction of our needs that the tools offer. We have drained effort out of life so that we tend rather to choose the easy path. But there is no easy path to deeper cultural appreciation and so we neglect or abandon that path, choosing instead the path of easy gratification that canned culture offers.

    2) Need, when readily and frequently, satisfied, results in habituation and diminishment of reward. To recover the reward we increasingly feed our needs. This need/reward cycle of satiety becomes a fixation. It is addictive and becomes a powerful barrier to our perceptions of the sublime because fixation on immediate need crowds out other players on the stage of the mind.

    3) We have become infatuated with the power of personal causation enabled by these tools, because these tools magnify the power of our causation. making us more like the gods. This infatuation with our own power makes us hyper-individualists, weakening our connections with others and diminishing our need for cultural connections. This god-like capacity has given us a new object for love, and that is love of the self. Our innate love of the good, the true and the beautiful is supplanted, displaced or weakened by this love of the self.

    4) Our tools have reduced people to two dimensional representations on a screen, whom we can call up or dismiss at will, heightening further our infatuation with the power of personal causation and making us even more god-like. And being more god-like we have reduced need for concern about the values and culture of others.

    We become philistines.

    Like