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Rules of Debate

I'm reading an introduction into Eastern Philosophy and I appreciated what I read today of the rules of philosophical debate established by the Naiyayika school in India.  There are 3 types of debate--discussion (vada), disputation (jalpa), and destructive criticism (vitanda).  Here's an excerpt:

Vada is concerned with arriving at the truth through rational discussion. The aim is not simply to win the other party over to your view, but to work through the arguments together.  Even if agreement cannot be reached, the debate will succeed if each party comes to a good understanding of the other's position.  A successful debate is one in which both participants explain their position using the five-membered Nyaya form of argument and without breaking any of the rules of reasoning.

Wow, that sounds really good and constructive.  I wish we had more of that type of public discourse.  And I appreciated these ideas:

This framework for debate was developed to be conducive to the exchange and clarification of ideas.  The respondent is not allowed simply to contradict the proponent's thesis and advance another in its place.  Instead the thesis has to be thoroughly examined in the terms offered by the proponent.  The respondent has to put himself into the mindset of the proponent and appreciate the force of the arguments from that person's point of view.


Idols of the Mind

Bacon headshot
In Novum Organum, Sir Francis Bacon writes that there are "four species of idols [that] beset the human mind."

The first are Idols of the Tribe--"man's sense is falsely asserted to be the standard of things."  These are "inherent in human nature."

Second are Idols of the Den--besides the errors common to all humans, each individual has his or her own den "which intercepts and corrupts the light of nature, either from his own peculiar and singular disposition, or from his education and intercourse with others, or from his reading, and the authority acquired by those whom he reverences and admires, for from the different impressions produced on the mind."

Next are Idols of the Market--these are false ideas generated by our social interactions.  Bacon emphasizes the role language plays: "words still manifestly force the understanding, throw everything into confusion, and lead mankind into vain an innumerable controversies and fallacies."

Finally, there are Idols of the Theatre--these arise from "the various dogmas of peculiar systems of philosophy."  Bacon wrote, "For we regard all the systems of philosophy hitherto received or imagined, as so many plays brought out and performed, creating fictitious and theatrical worlds."  Wow!  That sounds like someone writing in the 20th or 21st centuries.

What can rid us of these idols?  "The formation of notions and axioms on the foundation of true induction is the only fitting remedy by which we can ward off and expel these idols."


Knowledge & Power: Some Baconian Aphorisms

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I've begun reading Sir Francis Bacon's Novum Organum as part of my now many-year project of reading through some of the philosophical canon, re-reading some volumes I've read before and some for the first time.  Here are a few aphorisms from the beginning of the book.  Some comments afterwards.

Knowledge and human power are synonymous.

The subtilty of nature is far beyond that of sense or of the understanding; so that the specious meditations, speculations, and theories of mankind are but a kind of insanity, only there is no one to stand by and observe it.

For the subtilty of nature is vastly superior to that of argument.

The human understanding, from it peculiar nature, easily supposes a greater degree of order and equality in things than it really finds.

The human understanding is active and cannot halt or rest, but even, though without effect, still presses forward.

For a man always believes more readily that which he prefers.  He, therefore, rejects difficulties for want of patience in investigation; sobriety, because it limits his hope; the depths of nature, from superstition; the light of experiment, from arrogance and pride, lest his mind should appear to be occupied with common and varying objects; paradoxes, from a fear of the opinion of the vulgar; in short his feelings imbue and corrupt his understanding in innumerable and sometimes imperceptible ways.

But by far the greatest impediment and aberration of the human understanding proceeds from the dulness, incompetency, and errors of the senses; since whatever strikes the senses preponderates over everything, however superior, which does not immediately strike them.

For the sense are weak and erring.

As I read these and other comments by Bacon, at the very foundation of our modern science, I was intrigued to see not hubris and certainty (a la Descartes) but this emphasis upon limitation, bias, and error.  In some ways Bacon reads like a postmodern critique of modernism or something like Daniel Dennett's criticisms of how we interpret sense perceptions.  A reminder that our tradition contains rich material.


Segu

Segu (Ségou, #1)Segu by Maryse Condé
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A marvelous epic story. I fell in love with the characters, grieving their sorrows, and delighting in their joys.

The novel opens in Segu, the capital of the Bambara Empire in what is now Mali in the late 18th century on the day that the first white man tries to visit the city and is turned away. The story centers on the Tagore family over three generations as they navigate rapid changes brought upon West Africa by the rise of Islam, the slave trade, and the imperial ambitions of European nations. One theme of the novel is religious belief and how that is affected by larger social changes.

I come away from the novel with a much richer understanding of West African culture and history while also having greatly enjoyed the story Condé tells.

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The Open Society & Its Enemies

The Open Society and Its Enemies: New One-Volume EditionThe Open Society and Its Enemies: New One-Volume Edition by Karl R. Popper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This major work has been "on my list" since I read that marvelous little book Wittgenstein's Poker about the time Wittgenstein supposedly got so angry at Popper he brandished a poker at him (if you haven't read that book, I highly recommend it). After the election of Trump I thought I should hurry up and get it read.

This is a major tome that takes some work to get through (though you can effectively skim through portions). If you want to grasp the summary, read the chapter with the same title as the book.

The First Volume is a marvelous take down of Plato as the source of authoritarianism in the Western tradition. I must say, I was initially quite surprised with how critical Popper was of Plato, but the more I read the more convinced I became of Popper's analysis. Plato was an enemy of Athenian democracy and his philosophy has provided intellectual fodder for opposing the open society ever since.

The Second Volume is a criticism of historicism in more contemporary philosophy, first the conservative type represented by Hegel and then, more thoroughly, Marxism. Popper eviscerates Hegel with sentences that had me laughing out loud (despite the fact that I was reading them in my stepdad's hospital room). Popper greatly respects Marx and what he set out to do, but still thinks he was wrong. But this is judged on scientific grounds. Marx proposed a theory, Popper analyses and tests the theory and finds it wanting. He credits Marx with showing "that a social system can as such be unjust; that if the system is bad, then all the righteousness of the individuals who profit from it is a mere sham righteousness." Marx showed that we are responsible for the system.

And in this way, Popper contends that Marx contributed to the open society, for it is one in which we are all responsible. In fact, that's why there is often backlash against it--being responsible for oneself and one's society causes strain and stress.

What does sustain the open society? Democracy. The humanitarian spirit. Brotherhood. Individual freedom. Rational argument. Critical reason. Institutions. And incremental changes rather than bold revolutions. He places much emphasis on the role of institutions (a message I've been more open to since Trump, having revised my typical Gen X distrust of institutions).

And Popper doesn't think that you can give an argument to prove that the open society is right, believing in it is a matter of faith.

So, if you are looking for any purpose or meaning in history or politics, it is the purpose and meaning that we decide it will have. "Progress rests with us, with our watchfulness, with our efforts, with the clarity of our conception of our ends, and with the realism of their choice."

In the final paragraph he writes, "We must become the makers of our fate. We must learn to do things as well as we can, and to look out for our mistakes."

***
I wrote on the final page, "Very good. Now I have many questions." Popper wrote this book in the midst of the ascendancy of the totalitarians of the twentieth century, so he would be an excellent giver of advice for how the open society should respond to those who don't engage in rational discourse and who destroy the institutions that support democracy, but he doesn't provide such practical advice. Are we to simply continue on doing the best we can and hope that we survive? He doesn't think our success is inevitable or that history bends toward justice. So it would seem that the believers in the open society could do our best and still be defeated.

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V. S. Naipaul

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"I did other work; and in this concrete way, out of work that came easily to me because it was so close to me, I defined myself, and saw that my subject was not my sensibility, my inward development, but the worlds I contained within myself, the worlds I lived in."--
The Enigma of Arrival

In the summer of 2006 I went to Borders bookstore to buy some books to take with me on my beach vacation to Sarasota, Florida (one of those was Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, which no one probably considers a beach read).  I wanted to read a Naipaul novel.  Ever since he won the Nobel in 2001, he had been "on my list" and finally I thought I'd read one of his most oft-mentioned works, like A Bend in the River.  But, as I stood there looking over the various Naipaul novels, what attracted me was this line in one of the blurbs on the back cover of The Enigma of Arrival--"V. S. Naipaul is a man who can inspire readers to follow him through the Slough of Despond and beyond."

So, sitting on a beach in Florida, I read a novel about depression, set in Salisbury, England.  When I picked up my copy of this book last night after hearing of Naipaul's death, I sniffed it to see if the smell of the beach lingered a dozen years later.  Sadly, it does not.

From the blog review I wrote after that 2006 vacation, I was glad for the long, slow reading time to work through a slow novel.  I concluded, "This is a powerful, beautiful work that I highly recommend for anyone who desires a slow read that shows how a human being lives through depression."

The Enigma of Arrival is the best of the nine Naipaul books I've read (and I own 3 more I haven't gotten to yet).  Most often you hear of A House for Mister Biswas or A Bend in the River, but I didn't care as much for those (the links are the reviews I wrote about them).  I greatly enjoyed Guerillas.  I recommend Half a Life for anyone starting out with Naipaul--it is a short novel that contains many of his major themes, including "how a colonial shapes an identity in the midst of the collapse of colonialism."

I have admired Naipaul's novels because they engage you intellectually. They are conceptual; they grapple with ideas. He has an amazing command of language and crafts such beautiful sentences.  I wrote in 2017 that "He may be the best living writer in the English language."  Though I have also written that for all their admirable qualities, his novels "lack the magical, captivating charm of Gabriel Garcia Marquez."

I have also read two of his travel books, appreciating their "keen observational ability."  I felt his book Beyond Belief taught me much I did not know and helped shape my thinking on the geopolitical issues we have faced in the last two decades.  Of his book about the American South, I wrote, "He writes with a deep curiosity and desire to understand everyone."

In 2009 Patrick French wrote a highly praised biography entitled The World Is What It Is.  That year the biography made many end-of-the year lists of the best nonfiction books of the year.  Though I had only read two Naipaul books at the time, I bought and read the biography.  Naipaul had arranged for French to write an authorized biography, yet French's final work is highly critical of Naipaul the person, painting him as misogynist, ambitious, arrogant, and a user in a way that destroys the women in his life. Naipaul allowed the biography to go forward, but dismissed its portrayal of him.  It is maybe the most shocking authorized biography one could read.

And, yet, it made me even more interested in reading all of Naipaul's books, richly discussed in the biography.  It was at this point that I began picking them up in used bookstores and reading about one a year. 

The biography also meant I read the books more critically, worried about the misogyny in Guerillas or the way he makes fun of his own people in The Mystic Masseur.  Yet, as I pointed out when I read the latter in 2009, "Though, I must say, the very end seems to make even Naipaul's views somewhat comic."

I liked this paragraph from the NYTimes obit:

Yet Mr. Naipaul exempted neither colonizer nor colonized from his scrutiny. He wrote of the arrogance and self-aggrandizement of the colonizers, yet exposed the self-deception and ethical ambiguities of the liberation movements that swept across Africa and the Caribbean in their wake. He brought to his work moral urgency and a novelist’s attentiveness to individual lives and triumphs.

Naipaul has his critics, though.  And for very good reason.  He does not seem to have been a very nice man.  And he has said and written things that Chinua Achebe rightly describes as "downright outrageous."  Achebe, whose Things Fall Apart is a far greater novel than anything written by Naipaul (in my opinion), wrote an outraged critique of A Bend in the River in his book Home and Exile, which contends that African voices must write about Africa to overcome four centuries of dispossession in which non-Africans wrote biased stories about Africa. Naipaul included.

Achebe wrote, "Naipaul's forte is to browbeat his reader by such pontifical high writing."  Achebe points out the ways in which A Bend in the River ridicules and holds in contempt Africans (he demonstrates how Naipaul does the same for Indians and his native Trinidadians).  Naipaul has also defended Western civilization as the universal civilization, and Achebe criticizes this.  His own observation is thus, "To suggest that the universal civilization is in place already is to be willfully blind to our present reality and, even worse, to trivialize the goal and hinder the materialization of a genuine universality in the future."

So, reading Naipaul is very complicated.  The well-crafted books don't exist within a vacuum apart from the man.  Or the larger geopolitical issues.  Yet even these complexities seem to reflect the traumas of colonialism.  

The author narrator of The Enigma of Arrival returns to Trinidad and realizes that it has changed.  He writes, "So, as soon as I had arrived at a new idea about the place, it had ceased to be mine."  Then, we read, "Through writing--knowledge and curiosity feeding off one another--I had arrived at a new idea of myself and my world.  But the world had not stood still."


The Strain

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I have come to the end of the first book of Karl Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies.  The final chapter is marvelous.  One key insight is the idea of the strain that exists for humanity as we move from a closed society to  an open society.  

For Popper, closed societies are more collectivist.  A key feature is that an individual rarely struggles to understand what the right thing to do is, as social custom has made that clear.  Identity, meaning, and purpose are clear.

Open societies, however, are ones in which individuals are "confronted with personal decisions."  One must create one's identity and social relations rather than having them created for oneself.

While this shift has created benefits, it has also come with losses.  In modern societies many people are lonely and they feel the strain of having to make personal decisions.  Popper writes that though the Greeks began this revolution, as of the 1940's we humans were still in the beginning of the shift.  The strain can lead to totalitarianism in our own day.

Of the strain, he writes:

It is the strain created by the effort which life in an open and partially abstract society continually demands from us--by the endeavour to be rational, to forgo at least some of our emotional social needs, to look after ourselves, and to accept responsibilities.

Also:

It is part of the strain that we are becoming more and more painfully aware of the gross imperfections in our life, of personal as well as of institutional imperfection; of avoidable suffering, of waste and unnecessary ugliness; and at the same time of the fact that it is not impossible for us to something about all this, but that such improvements would be just as hard to achieve as they are important.  This awareness increases the strain of personal responsibility, of carrying the cross of being human.

Reading this chapter provided the best analysis I've yet encountered of the Trump phenomenon.

But our destiny as humans means we must move forward into the open society.  He writes that we can never return to the closed society without becoming like beasts.  This chapter concludes:

But if we wish to remain human, then there is only one way, the way into the open society.  We must go on into the unknown, the uncertain and insecure, using what reason we may have to plan as well as we can for both security and freedom.