Saturday, 31 January 2015

Thought 40: Twelve Angry Men

Basic plot: 12 jurymen have to decide on a murder case. At the beginning 11 against one, played by Henry Fonda, are ready to return a verdict of guilty. By the end of the film all members of the jury decide to return a verdict of not guilty, reasonable doubt having been established by a long and painful overview of the evidence given in court. 

Analysis: The film is called 12 angry men and much of the film consists in bickering, jibes and attacks between the various jurors, some holding on to blind prejudice and even, in the case of a nasty character, outright revenge, others, more thoughtful and empathetic, and sociologically more disposed (level of education, foreign born, not quite an insider etc), finally have their minds changed by a careful review of the facts. 

Even the cool intellectual character played by Henry Fonda, who is the first of the group to place himself in the shoes of the defendant, counts as an angry man; thus it is explicitly conceded that more liberal minded people are not above that emotion. A lot of the side-conversations between the characters say a lot about American society, its work and entertainment cultures, and the diversity of types, professions, ages and nationalities it brings together.

Aside from great pacing, great performances, great photography and  a great setting, this film drives home the point that disagreement and conflict can be overcome by cool, rational and even stolidly boring pedantry, when a man's life is at stake. And it only takes one person to set things in motion. Emotions finally give way to reason, and the stronger case, the one pushing for reasonable doubt, wins. 

The film thus helps remind viewers of the dialectical process of truth, a yes leading to a no which leads to a yes which then leads to another no, until that evanescent vapour we call truth finally wins the minds of all concerned, despite their initial misgivings. The most prejudiced man loses faith as he sees that others do not share his views. A thing about humans: much human thought and habit is imitative, mirroring its fellow persons and contextual social coding. 

For my two pennies worth, the ugliness of disagreement and conflict, as one can daily witness on political media websites, particularly between left-wing and right-wing people and parties, who may all count as 'angry' in a sense, plays an important role despite its unattractiveness in shedding some light on facts with the potential to win the hearts and minds of neutral parties or even makes some parties change sides. In that sense,

"What goes around comes around." 
See posts Factual Truth and Pretentious Thought on Pretentiousness for a philosophical take on the dialectically determined apparition of truth. 

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Thought 39: Suicidal Ideation

Is suicide a legitimate way to go?

Nietzsche himself in a sermon entitled "On Voluntary Death" in Thus Spoke Zarathustra urged his followers to "die at the right time". In Human All Too Human, part two, he mused that death by suicide was, in a sense, a rational death compared to the slow decomposing and loss of faculty that comes with old age, a phenomenon he called irrational death. 

"Ashes to ashes and dust to dust."
The ancient Romans, typically within elite circles, regarded suicide as a noble act if it was to avoid subjugation or the possibility of enslavement, e.g. Cato, who committed suicide after the victory of Caesar's troops.

We too, as humans, are nature, and everything we choose to do can be legitimately considered a part of human nature, whatever that may be; Hannah Arendt was sceptical as to the concept of "human nature" but looking at the survival habits of animals and plants even, I don't see why such an objective glance could not be brought to bear on human beings.

I attempted suicide at the age of 23 but came to regret it almost the moment I had done the act and fortunately survived the attempt to tell the story now, six years later. A successful suicide attempt is final and there is no telling the story in that case, as you have terminated your being for all time - as Heidegger notes, there is no way for a suicide to step out of his killing himself to observe it, as it were, from the outside and report it. Self-termination is the ultimate act preventing all future acts or statements of any kind.

Now I do not wish to preach in favour of suicide and perhaps it is true that suicide is not an option in theory - although everyone knows that it is an option in practice since suicide is not a rare thing and even less so should one take into account attempted suicides. 

I for one could not inflict the trauma on my loved ones - being fortunate enough to have loved ones - and, having suffered from trauma myself, there are few, if any, things worse. Yet I do have suicidal ideations now and again and much as I can see the harm this may cause it also causes no small amount of relief as well, esp. when I feel doomed and trapped by circumstance and emotional disturbance. 

Suicide will always remain a controversial point; as I asked before, is there such a thing as legitimate or, the converse, illegitimate suicide? 

Perhaps the act is what it is, the final statement of an individual and the value judgements that follow from it are merely that: judgements. Death by suicide is a fait accompli just as much as the birth of a new born child. Birth and death as such are the ultimate non-negotiables of life whatever may happen in between. As Tom Eliot put it,

"In my beginning is my end."

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Thought 38: Thoughts on The Iliad

Homer's Iliad plays rather like a David Attenborough nature documentary. There is no redeeming moral teleology or redeeming rationalisation. The strong prey on the weak, men over women and children, gods over men. The more cruel and sadistic a warrior you are the better. There are very minor correctives such as the rights of priests and supplicants or histories of guest-friendship. Honour and status is all. 

Consider the case of bandy-legged Thersites who, given his low status, is bullied by Odysseus and the Achaean troops for raising legitimate gripes against ruler King Agamemnon, almost identical to those of Achilles, but Achilles is high and mighty and the son of a goddess so was not humiliated to the same extent. 

Gods have their favourites and this is never according to how moral the favourites are but according to their status, lineage and how much honour they have given to those gods. Gods sadistically play tricks on humans, such as Athena against Hector in book 22. Zeus has his favourites, such as Athena, and his least favourites such as Ares. Aphrodite, goddess of erotic love, is made fun of at one point by more belligerent and war-focused gods such as Athena. 

Troy finally is burned to the ground (not depicted in the Iliad but predicted as an inevitable outcome and also described in the sequel the Odyssey) and its women and children raped and sold into slavery. 

As Nietzsche fondly noted of Homer, the early Greek tragedians (Aeschylus and Sophocles) and pre-Socratic philosophers (Heraclitus first and foremost, referred to several times on ScruffyOwlet's Tree) is that they depicted in some great detail the horrors of existence, the injustices of men and gods, the suffering of humanity without ever passing moral judgement, just like a David Attenborough in a nature documentary. That is just our lot. In Birth of Tragedy he noted with distaste that this amoral tradition was brought to an end by Socrates and his playwright follower Euripides who did start passing moral judgement.

In fact elites have every reason to favour darwinism as it justifies and supports their power and their special privileged predatory position. The difference with Homer's world is that neoliberal elites use the language of the rule of law and justice but, as Chomsky would argue, in a doctrinal way, far removed from any tangible democratic reality from the viewpoint of ordinary people. 

An example of double-speak I have found in my thoughtful labours is that the term 'economic growth' on closer analysis could read as 'un-economical waste' but it all depends on your intent and perceiving angle. In any event, see post Economics as Domestication.

I will end this array of notes with a quote from French poet Baudelaire

"Il n'a que deux droits qui comptent véritablement ; le droit de se contredire et le droit de s'en aller."
Translation: Only two rights truly matter: the right to contradict oneself and the right to leave (physically by moving or biologically by suicide, either or both could be intended).

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Review 1: Some Heidegger Books

Heidegger has loomed large in my imagination for the better part of ten years. I have even dedicated a piano improvisation-come-composition to his name [now called Staccato Hypnosis rather than its original title of Heideggeriana]. Below are eight Amazon book reviews of Heidegger which, if nothing else, help clarify, to me at least, the relationship I have with that most idiosyncratic and untimely of thinkers.

Review title: Witty, Subversive, Magnetic - Quintessential Heidegger

To those who know their philosophy, Martin Heidegger is to thinking what Christopher Nolan arguably is to film-making, that is, bloody talented. This lecture course, which runs just shy of three hundred pages, is a long commentary and dissection of two Hölderlinian hymns with plenty of scattered references to other texts by Hölderlin.

To Heidegger enthusiasts this lecture book remains familiar territory with familiar Heideggerian takes on poetry, the gods, commencements as opposed to beginnings, the perceived cheapness and gratuity of modern representations of culture and religion; in short the long list of anti-modern posturings which make up Heideggeriana. In his own words

"Everything modern is always already out of date before it has even seen the light of day."
For most writers such partis pris would jar in their ludicrous generality and negative outlook, glossing over all the great and interesting facets of the Modern World and, to be sure, Heidegger has his detractors.

But for want of a better word, books by Heidegger have something sacred about them in their poetical sensitivity and care for the German language which translates well into English (certainly better than French in my opinion, but I'm biased as English is my mother tongue).

At times reading the text I couldn't help but smile or even chuckle at Heidegger's wit and cynicism which nonetheless is not of the cheap, easy kind but rings true to those who have an eye and sensation for all that is profoundly contradictory and alarming in the world of modern technology, Facebook, Apple and Amazon. A Capitalist Yankee, Heidegger most definitely is not.

In conclusion I will say buy and read this book if you have already been seduced by Heidegger's printed Geist; for others, perhaps new to or lukewarm towards Heidegger, try something else as I doubt that this opus will change your mind on this most contrary and controversial (yet so endlessly captivating) of thinkers.

Review Title: A Good'Un

A wonderful lecture course as per usual with Heidegger.

As a thoughtful person with a taste for the philosophical I read Heidegger books for fun and often find tremendous nourishment in Heidegger's idiosyncratic but nonetheless philosophically effective prose and use of language which works in English as well as in German.

Basic Problems of Phenomenology (BPP) deals in similar bread and butter as Being and Time but in a slightly more academic and historical way as Heidegger goes through the philosophies of Kant, Lötze, Hobbes, Mill, not to mention the obligatory Plato and Aristotle and medieval thinkers (Thomas, Augustine, Suarez) to illuminate the concept of being and of Dasein in contradistinction from what is extant (things). In particular much scrutiny is brought to bear on Kant's assertion that being-existence is not a real predicate.

A lot if not all of the lecture is philosophical fine-tuning and the phenomenological drawing of distinctions between core philosophical concepts - existence, essence, presence, absence, Dasein, extantness, the spannedness of time and many more - but the effort by Heidegger is so sustained and elaborate that one certainly does come out of it all the wiser only to quickly forget the argumentative niceties of the text in favour of a firmer grasp of the Dasein which in each case we ourselves are, to use a Heideggerian turn of phrase.

A must read for Heidegger fans and students of his, BPP does become a bit of a slog after page 250 (in my reckoning with the text), but as others have noted is a very good complement to Being and Time.

I deduct a star out of sheer annoyance with the transliteration of the Greek passages into the Latin alphabet which is contrary to the norms of Heideggerian scholarship and offends my taste as a small time Ancient Greek reader. The translation, however, is excellent.

Review Title: One of My Faves

This is one of my favourite lecture courses by Heidegger. His fastidious penetration of Plato's two dialogues is pure delight for spiritual natures like myself. A knowledge of Ancient Greek is a necessity to appreciate the book's scope and spirit as Heidegger dissects the Ancient Greek with razor sharp precision.

I can't stress enough how beautiful this lecture is.

Review Title: Of The Event

This new translation is beautiful in its simplicity and rigour. It pinpoints the fact that, like Nietzsche, Heidegger is a global thinker whose thought will inspire many to make the leap into thinking and become creators in their own right.

Contributions to Philosophy is not an impossible read, only it requires a high degree of thoughtfulness which one must fight tooth and nail to achieve in our distracted times. I myself have undergone many trials and tribulations in my own journey of thought to reach the point where I can now read the whole of Contributions in two-three sittings.

In the shortest possible way I would say that Contributions is a preparation for a redefinition of man's essence, away from the calculating rational animal. to Da-sein, the being who grounds the there. Time and space, for Heidegger, can only be adequately grasped in terms of Da-sein and this is because metaphysics - in the light of the death of the Christian moral god - is at an end - it is now time for the 'other' thinking, of whose nature Heidegger will describe in the two sequels to Contributions, Mindfulness and The Event.

What, ultimately, is Heidegger's contribution to Western thought? I would say Heidegger's contribution lies in decisively bringing metaphysics to an end - something Nietzsche wanted to happen but was unable to achieve himself (no thinker can leap over his own shadow) and thereby creating the spiritual conditions necessary for a few individuals here and there across the globe to assert themselves in their naked creativity, "beyond good an evil" and thereby achieve freedom.

Review Title: Life Affirming Philosophizing

Philosophy is philosophizing. And this book is philosophizing on a very deep and elaborate level. The structure of the philosophizing of this lecture course by Heidegger, on my reading, follows a six part movement.

- The first movement concerns what philosophy is which, according to German poet Novalis, lies in "the desire to be at home everywhere", i.e. the act of philosophising stems from a form of homesickness. In this first part Heidegger looks into the history of the word "metaphysics" and what that history tells us about our philosophical and intellectual tradition. This is more of a historical analysis and I was particularly piqued by the realisation that causal knowledge, i.e. knowledge of causes, stems from Medieval preoccupations around God, the ultimate cause or uncreated being, and all that follows from that.

- The second movement takes a long hard look at boredom and dissects it in three main forms: being bored by... (e.g. waiting for a train); being bored with... (e.g. a dinner party); it is boring for one... (e.g. walking through city streets on a Sunday afternoon). The third form, the most profound, underlies and sustains the other two forms. Boredom is an attunement and as such has the potential to bring us to an awareness of our being as human beings, i.e. our temporality. Heidegger asks: has contemporary man become boring for himself? For Heidegger what is oppressive in feeling bored is precisely the lack of oppressiveness on our there-being, i.e. our "Da-sein" is not yet burdened, it is free-floating and thus susceptible to being oppressed by temporality which we try hard to outdo by "passing the time." Within the anatomy of time, for Heidegger, three perpectives come to the fore; prospect with regards to the future, respect with regards to the present and retrospect with regards to the past.

- The third movement, in anticipating a discussion on the animal as distinguished from man, analyses in some depth organs, the organic as distinguished from instruments or equipment. For Heidegger it is because we are capable of seeing that we have eyes; not the reverse. While equipment (products), such as a pen, are characterized by readiness for use, they are not in themselves capable; i.e. the pen lying on the table without being put into use by a hand is incapable of writing, whereas my eye sees, is capable, and does not require me to "use" it to see - it is inherently capable of seeing as part of the capability of my organism. That is, the organ is subservient to the organism, i.e. the eye is subservient to the organism which is capable of seeing, whereas a product is only ever serviceable.

- The fourth movement concerns the metaphysical understanding of the word "world". In order to bring about an understanding of "world", Heidegger, in perhaps my favourite analysis of his I have read so far, distinguishes man and animal, not on the basis of the absence or presence of "reason", but in terms of their relationship to the world, defined as "the accessibility of beings as such and as a whole". The animal is poor-in-world in that while it is taken by or captivated by beings in its own "encircling disinhibiting ring" it does not apprehend beings as beings. A dog may lie under a table, say, but the dog does not apprehend the table as table. For Heidegger, behaviour is proper to animals whereas comportment is proper to human beings, because we are not merely taken by beings and captivated by them in a moving behavioural pattern, but we apprehend them and acknowledge them as such. Man, therefore, is world-forming, world is given to man as world and from this manifestness of beings (world) derives the logos apophantikos, propositional discourse.

- The fifth movement goes on to analyse propositional discourse, the logos apophantikos, and takes it cue from Aristotle as well as Kant. Words are symbols (from the Greek which means to bring together) with a meaning that emerge from agreement for beings around us with one another - disagreement can also occur. Philosophical concepts, for their part, are indicative concepts that point to there-being. Propositional discourse is an asserting or denying which conceals (pseudesthai) or reveals (aletheuein) by pointing out something. 

Deception lies in the fact that when I assert something I am pointing out something and my listener takes that pointing out to to be true. Heidegger goes on to analyse the copula, i.e. something "is" something - the board in the lecture theatre "is" black, the board "is" badly positioned. The copula, for Heidegger, points to the what-being of the thing - the board is and in its being is black - and a being-to-be true - the board actually is indeed black - as well as a that-being of a thing - the board is. In the case of "the board is badly positioned" it is tempting to ask: for whom in the lecture theatre? - but, for Heidegger, the real answer is that the board is badly positioned within the lecture theatre itself, not in relation to anyone in particular within that theatre. To summarize, logos - discourse or speech - hinges on the manifestness of beings as such and as as a whole which constitutes "world" and the world comes to prevail through the word.

- The sixth movement is basically a summation of the previous five movements and deals with the concept of projection as an opening for human beings for what makes possible. This summation struck me as slightly manic and euphoric but people who are into as controversial and maligned an author as Heidegger should not be put off by this.

Conclusion to my review: Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics provided me with a much clearer understanding of the phenomena that Heidegger analyses which is all part of a program of transforming one's self into there-being, Da-sein. Short of coming into one's own, Heidegger can only ever come off as turgid verbiage (as Nietzsche once said about philosophy, if one approaches it when "ill" then it will make you "iller" but if approached from a position of strength and self-belief, good philosophy comforts that inner strength). Moreover, not only do I understand myself better as an organism (such as when I had my eyes tested earlier for a new pair of glasses) but his analysis on animals also makes me grasp animals and their difference with ourselves in a much clearer way, such as when I see my local cats going round their daily business.

Review Title: Being and Time - Is It For You?

As far as this new translation goes, I found it adequate and was able to grasp the gist of Heidegger's discourse without too much effort. The book is certainly more aesthetically pleasing than the original translation and I found the notes helpful, particularly in translating Greek and Latin passages - and I say this even as an advanced Greek and Latin student. A big change with the original translation is that what was rendered as ready-to-hand has now become objective presence. Because words cannot be taken in isolation from their place in the narrative, this semantic change does not adversely affect the overall text which, with the participation of the reader, has a clear internal coherence and meaning.

As far as my personal taste is concerned, I have collected many if not all of Heidegger volumes over the course of my life; I also own most of his output in the German and have philosophised along similar lines as he. In addition I have paid some, but not much, attention to the Heidegger controversy. The reason for this latter choice is that I am more interested in evaluating Heidegger's discourse on its own terms and its fruitfulness for my own thinking but I certainly do not denigrate those who believe that the man behind the discourse and the context of the discourse should also be scrutinised.

The book. I give it a four star rating, not based on any objective scale of the book's worth relative to other books, but on the very personal scale of "I like it" but do not "love it". The good points, for me, are Heidegger's understanding of human existence as rooted in "care" and authentic existence as liberated from the "they-self", i.e. my death belongs to me as an individual which forces upon me an ethical choice, which in Heidegger's language is rendered as "wanting-to-have-a-conscience", between grasping myself as an entity caught in time destined to die or to endorse and take on board public discourse and forget myself entirely in whatever the "they" are saying in the news or on the radio. It is not a case of repudiating public discourse altogether but it is a case of finding oneself first so that one may evaluate it appropriately and without conceit or manipulation.

Ironically indeed, given Heidegger's reputation, the book's greatest strength in my view is thus to provide a compelling case for living ethically in the sense of responsibly confronting one's guilt and making a change if necessary, based on an ontological foundation rather than on a moral world view. Coming to grips with temporality is also a strong point of the book and wonderfully liberating since once one understands that one's being does not "have" time but actually is time, such frustrations that arise from always feeling like one is "running out of time" soon evaporate, provided of course one overcomes guilt, regret and angst and is willing to make the sacrifices and efforts necessary that follow from such an insight. Those who are not interested in having a conscience need not bother but such people are unlikely to be an audience for Being and Time.

Heidegger is also very good at understanding what we call "world" as a totality of significations. Thus his analysis of "things" is very astute since they always have a contextual significance, which insight will guide his later thinking on technology. And as human beings we are beings-in-the-world, that is, we are born, live and die in the world; in other words, we bring the world with us as human being, without human beings there can be no world, i.e. human world. In Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, Heidegger will indeed interpret man as world-forming - see review. (In light of Heidegger's contribution to the meaning of "world", Marx's call to change "the world" rather than merely interpreting it as philosophers now comes across as pedestrian at best, woefully blind and dishonest at worst.)

Why, then, only four stars? Part of it is what Heidegger does not and could not include in this book such as the meaning of living with others given the plurality of types and personalities within the human population; the nature of money and what it means for the possibility of thought (Heidegger was a paid philosopher, which is fine, but neither he nor Nietzsche ever explicitly dealt with the significance of money unlike Marx who saw it as key); and, linked to this, the meaning of politics and how power can determine discourse of any kind in an exclusive fashion - Arendt and Foucault went a long way in covering this last question mark, however.

In addition this book can comfort one's own philosophical intuition and at most spur it into action, which is indeed a lot, but ultimately it is not revolutionary in any way - like most philosophy, the discourse leaves the world untouched and only has a role to play in personal perception, and does not pretend to do otherwise, but for those seeking solutions and answers for their problems or social ills generally, my thought is that this book is unlikely to be of great help. That said, Being and Time is powerful enough to provide a strong theoretical basis for one's life situation which I think can be just as effective if not more so than subscribing to a religion, provided one thinks through the many gaps left by Being and Time and philosophise for oneself.

Lastly, and I've experienced this before with Heidegger's larger books, is that reading him can become a tad tedious after a while - he repeats himself constantly, very little concrete ideas are put across as opposed to an overarching structure or theme and the text is, as ever with Martin, very heavy-footed, unlike a writer like Nietzsche whose light-footed and pithy style is by contrast a pleasure to read.

In conclusion, to answer the title of this review, I think that, deep down, you already know within you whether or not Being and Time is for you and the question is really: are you willing to take the plunge and confront Heidegger's questioning and explore questions that go deeper and further than most information and chatter that are immediately accessible? Based on my personal experience, I certainly think that, controversy or no controversy, engaging with Heidegger is a necessary stop in the long, hard but ultimately rewarding and salutary journey to philosophical and spiritual wisdom.

Review Title: A Small Lecture Course

This is a small lecture course book by Heidegger standards where he purports an "introduction" to philosophy by considering the link between poetising and thinking. Delivered before he was drafted into the German army, Heidegger's tone throughout has a strong melancholic tinge to it, a greater heaviness than usual which shows that he was clearly under pressure and outright exhaustion is looming on the horizon - not surprising given the context these lectures were given in! After the "denazification" proceedings he was subjected to after the war he will indeed succumb to nervous collapse and, need I add, a suicide attempt, but it is testimony to his strength that he recovered and continued his thoughtful journey once he regained hope and energy.

Anyway in this book he draws from Nietzsche, a thinker who wrote poetry, and Hölderlin, a poet who wrote thoughts, to illustrate the connection between thinking and poetising and how this illuminates the philosophical experience as such. In the discussion we have a small exegesis of a few Nietzsche poems bemoaning the empty cleverness of his German countrymen as well as the decisive and, for Nietzsche, disastrous role England has played in the shaping of the modern world as we know it today. I have been piqued by the recurring critique of England by both N and H and it is hard to deny that, in the main, England has been the birthplace of modern democracy, capitalism, modern technology, colonialism, darwinism, marxism, CCTV and so forth.

A remarkable little island then but clearly not to the liking of these gentlemen; and in one of his texts (the reference of which I have long forgotten) Heidegger claims that metaphysically modern England is a form of "Christian Bolshevim" (or ochlocracy - mob rule) which, while more restrained in its will-to-power than the now ex-Soviet Union, is for that very reason more dangerous; it seems that for Heidegger modernity would first come to an end where it was born, i.e. in England, but not after England had lost its moral veneer. We are living in the midst of how power in this country is showing its true face and thus fulfilling part of Heidegger's prediction that the English paradigm would self-annihilate by losing its appearence as saviour of morality - this will take time to unfold however, and the worst is surely still to come.

So, do I recommend this lecture course? Yes, of course, it's Heidegger. An acquired taste perhaps but one that is so key in our interesting times.

Review Title: What Calls For Thinking?

What is Called Thinking? which, from the German Was HeiBt Denken?, could also be translated as "What calls for thinking?" is a transcript of lecture courses Heidegger delivered in the fifties. What is Called Thinking? is as meaningful today, if not more so, as it was then.

The book is divided in two parts. The first part is an appreciation and confrontation with Nietzsche and his cry that "The wasteland is growing. Woe to him who hides wastelands within!", a sentence addressed to the superman, whose nature and difference with the last man, the rational animal, is discussed at length in this section.

Essentially the bridge to the superman is one of renunciation, of deliverance from revenge, of the ill will towards time and its 'it was' rooted in past suffering. Revenge and its most common manifestation,resentment,and the hatred and suspicion of anything creative and free, is essentially an attunement that is at odds with time that wills the world away.

According to Heidegger, the beginning of the modern world began when "man" thought that he was running out of time. In learning thinking we are learning to deliver ourselves from revenge and to think our habits in a non reactive way. No easy task but unavoidable for the advancement of the type "man".

The second part is a confrontation with Parmenides, a pre-platonic thinker, which again tries to illuminate the phenomenon of thinking as opposed to blinking which is what passes as thought today. A knowledge of the Greek alphabet and preferably of Greek itself is here helpful.

In conclusion, this book will appeal to profound natures who want to overcome the spirit of revenge which mires our world today. It sheds important lights on Thus Spoke Zarathustra and puts us to the test; are we willing to learn thinking?