Friday, January 20, 2017

Constructing (Deconstructing?) Constructivism

I pause in mourning the advent of this peculiar new presidency and its even more peculiar president to consider the philosophical view called, I believe, "Constructivism."  If I understand it correctly, it is an epistemological view, and roughly speaking is the belief that our knowledge is "constructed" because it is contingent on human perception, conventions and social or cultural experience.  As a result, it's claimed, our knowledge isn't of an external world or reality.

As you might expect, those who accept Constructivism are disinclined to believe there is any objective truth or knowledge of what is real, because what we consider to be reality is, in fact, and necessarily, constructed reality.  I confess I have a tendency to maintain that such a view is a difference which makes no difference and is thereby not a difference at all.  (I paraphrase, and forget who said this, but believe it was either William James or Mr. Spock, or perhaps even both of them).  That tendency has its basis in my feeling that if we can't know what reality is it's foolish to dwell on that fact; we'll never know what it is and so our time is better spent in dealing, as we must, with constructed reality.

But I also think that the use of the word "Constructivism" and the claim that we "construct" reality as a result of our interaction with the (presumably but it seems unknowable) real, is misleading.  We certainly can construct things, but when we do so we act intentionally to do so.  We construct a bridge, a building.  However, when we see, feel, hear, etc., we construct nothing at all.  If I see an apple I'm not constructing it, nor even am I constructing what I see if it is in the "external world" or unconstructed reality something different that I can't know (just what that might be we can't say, because we can't know what it is according to Constructivism).  I am, instead, seeing.  I'm doing part of what we do as living, human, organisms which are part of the world.  I'm living.

It seems to me Constructivism partakes of the same kind of duality as certain other theories of knowledge which are committed to the belief that we're separate from reality; apart from it rather than a part of it.  At least, our minds are thought to be separate from it if not our bodies.  Our minds are constructing reality being as they are dependent on our senses, our society, our culture.

If we don't construct a reality (if we don't make it) separate from the "really real"--if in other words we merely live as humans do given our characteristics as living creatures, see as humans must do, hear as they do, eat as they do, feel as they do, etc. as parts of the world--it strikes me there is neither the need nor the inclination to maintain that the environment in which we do those things, the world of which we're a part, is in any way disconnected from us or unknowable.  We aren't different from reality, or observing reality, or studying reality.  We're a part of reality.  We're reality just as much as everything else is.  There is no reality without us because reality would in that case not be reality; it would be something different.

It happens we humans, as part of what we do while living in the world (as constituents of reality) congregate, form bonds with others, form tribes, nations, societies, cultures.  They're likewise parts of the world, the real.  What we do as members of nations, societies, cultures are naturally influenced by them, but there's nothing unreal about this.  They may be different from one another as a result of what takes place with humans in different parts of the world, but they're all parts of reality as well.  This doesn't mean that we're incapable of knowing what the "really real" is, it means we're living in the "really real."  It doesn't follow from this that there is some external world unknowable to us.

Submitted for your consideration, some thoughts I have while avoiding what I'd rather not think about.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Trimalchio Ascendant

We all know Trimalchio.   He is an unforgettable character in a surviving portion of the Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter, friend, for a time, of the Emperor Nero.  A former slave, now a freeman, of enormous wealth who is holding a great banquet his friends and those beholden to him attend.  These lavish dinners were serious business to the Romans.  You were, almost literally, nobody unless you were invited to one hosted by the high and mighty, the notorious, the famous. 

Trimalchio's dinner is described in detail, as is Trimalchio himself.  The dinner is many-coursed and remarkable in its excess.  It may be that Petronius' detailing of the dinner and the conduct of Trimalchio, his slaves and friends, served to inspire the belief in Roman decadence which many of us hold so dear, and which has been depicted in various films.

Trimalchio is described as self-important, boorish, arrogant, ignorant, loud, verbose, without breeding or taste.  His ego is astounding.  He even treats his guests to an enactment of what he has decreed will take place at his own funeral; naturally a very grandiose affair, solemnly acting his part as his revered corpse. 

He's referred to with some frequency by authors who lived after Petronius, who died by his own hand when condemned by Nero, spending his last moments, it's said, elegantly and savagely relating the Emperors various faults to those in attendance.  The parties held by Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby are compared to Trimalchio's feast, for example.  It seems he comes to mind whenever the defects of the very rich and wasteful are in evidence, particularly the newly rich who haven't yet learned to display their wealth with a degree of taste and class.

Alas, he also comes to mind, to my mind in any case, whenever our president-elect is mentioned or appears before me on my TV, PC or smart phone.  He is ubiquitous of course; our technology makes him so, certainly, but he is responsible himself for his omnipresence because of his various invariably silly or smug or angry or sophomoric tweets when not in the public eye, his blatant self-promotion, his stunts, his propensity for overstatement, the enthusiasm with which he extols his many virtues and denigrates those he feels fail to do the same or oppose him in some fashion.  He seems incapable of ignoring any slight, real or imagined.

He won't be a dignified president, I think.  He'll likely be what he's shown himself to be in the past:  a showman, a salesman, a kind of carnival barker and insult comic.  Not what one wants as a president, but as we like to say these days, it is what it is.  He'll schmooze when it serves his purpose, and sulk when things don't go his way.  If he's wise, or if his handlers are, he'll be content to be a kind of figurehead, wheeled out to condemn or praise or make prepared announcements while his people do the hard work of government.  This seems to have been how he's handled his businesses, in fact.  If this is how it will be, he may be safely ignored or become a kind of character in a TV series whose statements are always suspect and whose missteps are mitigated by those surrounding him.  He wouldn't be a serious figure.

We can hope for that, in any case.  We already see a rather extensive about-face on his part.  He blithely ignores the promises and claims he made before the election; his nominees are avidly taking positions contrary to those he's taken.  He will say, it seems, most anything that appears to be advantageous at the moment and then do the contrary if it appears to be advantageous later. 

So perhaps we'll be fortunate, and can watch Trimalchio do what he does now as we watched him as a character in a story told by an ancient author well-acquainted with those like him who were rich and powerful in his time, and having watched will be sadder, but will survive to be wiser.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Pertinence Maxim: A Matter of Time

While I was attending college, a new professor appeared on campus.  Although it was, and still is so far as I know, a small liberal arts college, that in itself wasn't extraordinary or significant.  Professors would appear now and then and some would leave after a time; some would not.  What was unusual in the case I recall here was that this particular professor was said to be a sociologist.  He was the first of his kind at my college.  At least, he was the first to be called a sociologist.

As a professor of philosophy I admired and respected thought him to be worthy, I signed up for one of his classes.  The class in question addressed Time.  If I remember correctly, the first thing we students were asked to do was submit a paper describing what we felt Time to be.  I think I wrote something to the effect that time was a concept by which we determined when certain events took place or should take place (planting crops, for example).  I thought, in other words, that we came to keep time because it was useful to do so for various purposes, especially as our societies became larger and more complex.  This I suppose was a kind of anthropological view.  Time was a method used in determining and defining what takes place or should take place.  Such was, and is, my guess, in any case.  But in all honesty I'm not sure just what I thought.  That was a long time ago. 

I confess I thought my view of Time to be superior to the views of others in the class who relied on Simon and Garfunkel (Hazy Shade of Winter) and others to arrive at a definition.  The professor, though, treated our views as equally deficient and dismissed them all in a rather cursory manner.  To this day I have no idea what he thought was the correct definition of "Time."  I know only he was almost contemptuous of what we thought ("Ah yes, this is the so-and-so. view of Time").  He may have declined to give us a definition.  He was one of those professors who thought that teaching consists of asking, not answering, questions.  I encountered a few like-minded professors in law school.  It may be there is or was a widespread belief that this style of teaching is the fabled Socratic Method.  I find it hard to believe that anyone who actually reads Plato can come to such a conclusion, as I think he carefully prepared his dialogues so that they would inevitably result in a position he thought appropriate through the device of questions; much as a lawyer prepares questions to put to a witness.

It happens that Time is a subject of philosophical analysis.  There are philosophers of Time and so must be a Philosophy of Time.  The ontological status of time is studied and debated.  Philosophers discuss the difference between the past, the present and the future.  They consider why Time seems to us to be an arrow.  They wonder whether there truly is anything but the present.  They wonder about fatalism.  They ask why Time seems to move swiftly in some cases or to certain people.

For my part, I wonder as I do in most cases whether these wonderings make any difference to how we live our lives, and am inclined to say they make no difference whatsoever.  Also for my part, I feel that if they make no such difference, debating them is futile.  This may well be a fault of mine.  There may be something lacking in me.

Perhaps the professor of sociology I encountered (or did I? It was in the past!) would have though that C.S. Peirce's pragmatic maxim would be of some assistance in defining Time; more assistance, even, than Paul Simon's lyrics.  It's hard to say.  The maxim has appeared in different forms, but I'll make reference to the form in which it appeared in Peirce's essay entitled How to Make Our Ideas Clear: 

"Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object."

I can't remember whether I knew of this maxim when I studied under the eminent sociologist, but would have recourse to it now if recourse was required.  Happily, it isn't.  But I think the maxim would indicate that our conception of Time would be one which is made up of the uses to which we put that concept in doing things we do, e.g. eating, sleeping, working, taking vacations, parking cars, etc. 

I find myself baffled if I seek to define Time or even think of it in any other way.  Baffled, I say, in finding any reason to do so.  Clearly, we say there is a difference between what has happened and what is happening, and in identifying such things the concept of Time can be useful.  Should we say that there is such a difference?  Why not?  How do we err if we do?  Should we say there is no past?  Why? 

Won't we keep on living as we do, using Time, making Time, regardless of the ontological status of Time?   Won't we continue to distinguish past, present and future regardless of the differences there may be between them?  It seems we understand the differences between them well enough, and those differences hardly seem surprising or worthy of analysis.  Will we ever, seriously, claim that nothing happened in the past, that there will be no future?  Do we ever make the distinctions philosophers make or reach the conclusions they do as to Time while living our lives?  If we don't, doesn't that tell us something significant about the Philosophy of Time?

Perhaps another maxim along the lines of the pragmatic maxim would be useful.  Something like this:  "Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, which may result from our study of the subject in question.  If there are no such effects, then our study serves no purpose."  Let's call it "the pertinence maxim." [Copyright Ciceronianus, 2017.]

It may be that there are aspects of Time that may usefully be subject to scientific study, e.g. the reasons why we perceive times' passage in different ways in different circumstances.  Of course, Time has also been a subject of study in physics.  It seems to me, though, that this kind of study is one best pursued by scientists, not by philosophers.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Ecclesiastes 1:9

Every now and then (in fact, more now than then) I think wistfully of what great journalists, essayists and satirists would write of our times. Specifically, I wonder what someone like Mencken, or Bierce or Juvenal would have to say, if only they were alive to bear witness to our folly. In that mood I revisit what I've read by them, and sometimes find what I haven't read before (to discover something I haven't read is particularly delightful).

I've been reading Mencken mostly. The Sage of Baltimore had an incisive mind, his writing is clear, erudite and witty, and he was more often right than wrong, though he had his prejudices and didn't hesitate to voice them. What struck me most as I read was that seemingly very little has changed since his death. Granted, he didn't die all that long ago, but it seems long ago and it seems we've come to think of most everything which happened more than a decade into the past as being ancient. Such are the expectations and inclinations of those of the age of Twitter.

The chapter (if I may call it such) of the Bible called "Ecclesiastes" makes several neat little observations about life which seem commonplace now, but perhaps were not so then. One might not think the members of a Bronze Age tribe would make them, but they were made nonetheless. Some have a Stoic tinge to them. What's referred to in the title to this post is the one which is paraphrased as "there is nothing new under the sun." Let's give the ancient author his due and quote him here: "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun." (King James' version).

This saying came to mind while I was reading an article Mencken wrote in 1924 regarding immigration. The government was taking steps to stem the tide of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, then. That's more or less where my ancestors come from, as I'm largely of Italian and Polish descent My ancestors would not have been affected by the law, as they were in the first wave of immigration from those parts, so to speak; the late 19th century. That assumes the law wouldn't have retroactive application, of course, but I think that would be pushing anti-immigration sentiment too hard; making it too obviously contrary to the Constitution.

I think the rhetoric used to justify such a law at that time would have been similar to the rhetoric we hear now about Mexican immigrants. Mencken in his article doesn't dwell on the Italians, especially southern Italians and Sicilians, being undesirable in the many ways they were thought to be undesirable in 1924. Instead, the article sets forth an argument that if the immigration of such people is prohibited, then the Americans Mencken called "Anglo-Saxon" would be forced to do the manual or factory labor being done by the immigrants. This made no sense to Mencken, because the lower kind of Anglo-Saxon not only wanted to avoid such work, but were no longer capable of doing such work well or diligently. The higher kind of Anglo-Saxon, of course, would not even consider doing such work in any situation, according to Mencken. Mencken, as a devotee of Nietzsche, was inclined to speak of higher and lower kinds of people.

The claim that immigrants are needed to do the work we don't want to do, but which nevertheless should be done, is an argument we hear today as well. So it isn't new, and nor is the claim that immigrants from particular areas or nations are undesirable, which is to say unlike Americans who are descendants of northern Europe or England. It is only new to the extent it addresses new people.

Though we're often called a nation of immigrants, America has always been unkind to immigrants. Irish, Chinese, Italian throughout the 19th and even into the 20th century; now Mexican and Muslim. The Irish, Chinese and Italian have been accepted for the most part; perhaps more properly assimilated. The prejudice against them reduced over time. Perhaps that will happen as well with the newly undesirable, and they will have their turn at objecting to immigrants in the future. It seems to be the American way.

It's claimed by some that restricting the immigration of Muslims is a special case, as it impacts our national and personal security. The same was also said of others, though. Italians promoted crime and even organized it. Eastern Europeans were communists. Italians could be anarchists as well, of course, like Sacco and Vanzetti.

Mencken wrote, wisely I think, that people don't really want liberty. Instead, what they want is security. What was truly said is that which shall be truly said, to paraphrase Ecclesiastes. We seem most willing to sacrifice our liberty--and those of others, of course--in the hope that sacrifice will provide us with security. Immigrants like many other things make us feel insecure.

Mencken thought democracy to be a destructive form of government given his contempt for the masses who through it would run the show, and remarked that its result in America would be that someday the common people would achieve their dream of electing a complete moron to the presidency. It may be that dream has come true at last, and that it has come in part due to our desire for security.

I suspect Mencken and other great cynics and critics of the past would therefore be inclined to write much like they did in the past if they lived now. There seems indeed to be nothing new under the sun at least as far as human conduct and misconduct is concerned, and so those who comment on human conduct are fated to make comments already made. But they would make them in with much more skill and wit than can be found these days, as skill and wit in communication are actively discouraged, the act of communicating instantly being of greatest importance in these unhappy times when talk is quick and cheap.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Incredibly Credulous

We're being told--by the purveyors of news--that we're imperiled by "Fake News."  Fake News is, it appears, something which purports to be actual news, but is not.  It seems it lurks everywhere, but tends to appear and be reproduced especially on Facebook.

I'm not certain whether I've ever encountered Fake News.  I tend to be amused by satirical news sites like The Onion and the Onion-like English language sites I find on the Web.  Those sites publish what can clearly be called news which is fake, but it must be the case that they don't publish Fake News, because if they did it's difficult to conceive how it poses a threat to our well-being.  The news they publish is plainly fake and fake in a way which amuses or at least provokes thought of a sort (generally in the nature of ridicule) regarding their subject matter.  Presumably, someone would have to be unusually credulous in order to believe that the news stories published on such sites are accurate or true.

Apparently, Fake News appears most on Facebook or similar social media, or appears in unsolicited emails.  I personally find it hard to understand why anyone would believe a purported news story appearing in such emails or popping up on Facebook, but it seems that many do.  That's something I find far more disturbing than Fake News itself.

For some time, those who have believed whatever it is they read in the paper or see on TV have been considered na├»ve, or far too trusting, or thoughtless.  So, it can be said that we've been aware of the fact that media can be misleading for many years.  We've also been aware of the fact that we can be manipulated by media as well.

One would think that this would make us cautious regarding what shows up on our tablets, PCs, laptops and smart phones.  However, if the news about Fake News is accurate, that's not the case.  We're seemingly more easily duped and less likely to question now than we have been in the past.

Clearly, our technology is such that our access to information of all kinds is much greater and easier than it was in the past. So is our ability to communicate and, more pertinently, the ability of others to communicate with us. Or, perhaps I should say, to communicate to us--to send us writings, pictures, videos, audios, regardless of whether they were sought. Unless we take precautions.

I'm hardly savvy about such things, but assume that in certain if not most cases its possible to block efforts to bombard us with Fake News and otherwise intrude on us electronically. I read that Facebook is taking steps to reduce Fake News, but assume we users can do so as well. No doubt some of us do.

But some of us don't and some of us apparently belong to groups or frequent sites which one way or another provide others with access to us. Assuming this is the case, why do some of us pay attention to Fake News and, evidently, believe it? Have we abandoned verification, or do we now lack the desire to verify? Do we determine what the source of Fake News may be or merely read it, listen to or see it and automatically accept its veracity? Do we unthinkingly pass it along, if we like it? If would seem a relatively simple thing to check the bona fides of Fake News. Is it nonetheless the case that we don't bother to or think doing so is unnecessary? Why must we be protected from it by others?

It's very human to accept as true what we hear from others if it is consistent with what we think is the case. It's good for our desires and prejudices, our thoughts and feelings, to be confirmed. Accept this human weakness as a source of the tendency to believe Fake News. What's concerning is the unquestioning acceptance of information, the suspension of thought which would seem to be a prerequisite of belief in Fake News if such belief is indeed widespread. It could be that our technology is now such as to render us particularly susceptible to manipulation because our receipt of information is encouraged by it and facilitated by it. But the acceptance of Fake News requires something more, something from us and not others. It would seem to me to require that we stop thinking.

Is that a function of technology as well? The speed of communication and our ability to respond to communications is such that we tend to act immediately and without thought to what is sent to us. At the same time, there are limitations on our ability to respond to communications or to send communications which are extensive. If we can only send a certain number of words at one time, we can only express a limited amount of information. The less we can express, the less we think. The less we analyze. The more we merely react and in fact emote. It's an invitation to stupidity and crassness, as we have seen and will see more and more as the Twitter-President looms and comes closer and closer, a noisy orange-tinged storm on the horizon.

That seems to be the way of it. But it's within our control whether we rely on and have recourse only to instant, limited communication and information. We have only ourselves to blame for Fake News and for what we do with/about it.