Saturday, December 27, 2008

Andrew Sullivan on "Why I Blog"

here. Insights on the nature and advantages of the medium. Much, but not all, applies to academic blogs.

From my first post in April 2006 through our adoption of Kate in March 2008, I posted relentlessly Mon-Wed-Fri. Now it's more like once a week. I suspect that not only the one-year-old child but also the new ipod have cut into my blogging: Many blogging ideas used to come during morning walks, which are now sometimes filled with Frank Sinatra, Al Stewart, or This American Life instead. I haven't decided if this is a good thing or bad.

Oh, and Happy (recent or continuing) Whatever! (Global Orgasm Day, for example.)

Friday, December 19, 2008

Zhuangzi: Big and Useless -- and Not So Good at Catching Rats

[Cross-posted at Manyul Im's Chinese Philosophy Blog]

Okay, I've written about this before; but, to my enduring amazement, not everyone agrees with me. The orthodox interpretation of Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) puts skillful activity near the center of Zhuangzi's value system. (The orthodoxy here includes Graham, Ivanhoe, Roth, and many others, including Velleman in a recent article I objected to in another connection.)

Here is one reason to be suspicious of this orthdoxy: Examples of skillful activity are rare in the Inner Chapters, the authentic core of Zhuangzi's book. And the one place in the Inner Chapters where Zhuangzi does indisputably praise skillful activity is in an oddly truncated chapter, with a title and message ("caring for life") suggestive of the early, immature Zhuangzi (if one follows Graham in seeing Zhuangzi as originally a Yangist). Even the term "wu wei", often stressed in skill-based interpretations as indicating a kind of spontaneous responsiveness, only appears three times in the Inner Chapters, and never in a way that indisputably means anything other than literally "doing nothing".

Zhuangzi writes:

Maybe you've never seen a wildcat or a weasel. It crouches down and hides, watching for something to come along. It leaps and races east and west, not hesitating to go high or low -- untill it falls into the trap and dies in the net. Then again there's the yak, big as a cloud covering the sky. It certainly knows how to be big, though it doesn't know how to catch rats (Watson trans., Complete, p. 35).
On the one hand, we have the skill of the weasel, which Zhuangzi does not seem to be urging us to imitate; and on the other hand we have the yak who knows how to... how to do what? How to be big! It has no useful skills -- it cannot carve oxen, guide a boat, or carve a wheel -- and in this respect, Zhuangzi says it is like the "big and useless" trees that repeatedly occur in the text, earning Zhuangzi's praise. Zhuangzi continues:
Now you have this big tree and you're distressed because it's useless. Why don't you plant it in Not-Even-Anything Village, or the field of Broad-and-Boundless, relax and do nothing by its side, or lie down for a free and easy sleep under it? (ibid.)
That is the core of Zhuangzi, I submit -- not the skillful activity of craftsmen, but lazy, lounging bigness!

Where else does Zhuangzi talk about skill in the Inner Chapters? He describes the skill of a famous lute player, a music master, and Huizi the logician as "close to perfection", yet he calls the lute-playing "injury" and he says these three "ended in the foolishness of 'hard' and 'white' [i.e., meaningless logical distinctions]" (p. 41-42). Also: "When men get together to pit their strength in games of skill, they start off in a light and friendly mood, but usually end up in a dark and angry one, and if they go on too long they start resorting to various underhanded tricks" (p. 60-61). He repeatedly praises amputees and "cripples" who appear to have no special skills. Although he praises abilities such as floating on the wind (p. 32) and entering water without getting wet (p. 77), these appear to be magical powers rather than perfections of skill, along the lines of having "skin like ice or snow" and being impervious to heat (p. 33); and its unclear the extent to which he seriously believes in such abilities.

How did the orthodox view arise, then? I suspect it's mostly due to overemphasizing the dubious Outer and Mixed Chapters and conflating Zhuangzi's view with that of the more famous "Daoist" Laozi (Lao Tzu). Since this happened early in the interpretive tradition, it has the additional force of inertia.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Do Chinese Philosophers Think Tilted Coins Look Elliptical?

[Cross posted at Manyul Im's Chinese Philosophy Blog]

In my 2006 essay "Do Things Look Flat?", I examine some of the cultural history of the opinion that visual appearances involve what I call "projective distortions" -- the opinion, that is, that tilted coins look elliptical, rows of streetlights look like they shrink into the distance, etc. I conjecture that our inclination to say such things is due to overanalogizing visual experience to flat, projective media like paintings and photographs. In support of this conjecture, I contrast the contemporary and early modern periods (in the West) with ancient Greece and introspective psychology circa 1900. In the first two cultures, one finds both a tendency to compare visual experience to pictures and a tendency to describe visual experience as projectively distorted. In the latter two cultures, one finds little of either, despite plenty of talk about visual appearances in general.

I didn't do a systematic search of classical Chinese philosophy, which I love but which has less epistemology of perception, but I did find one relevant passage:

If you look down on a herd of cows from the top of a hill, they will look no bigger than sheep, and yet no one hoping to find sheep is likely to run down the hill after them. It is simply that the distance obscures their actual size. If you look up at a forest from the foot of a hill, the biggest trees appear no taller than chopsticks, and yet no one hoping to find chopsticks is likely to go picking among them. It is simply that the height obscures their actual dimensions (Xunzi ch. 21; Basic Writings, Watson trans., p. 134)
Though I can recall no ancient Chinese comparisons of visual experience and painting, both Xunzi and Zhuangzi compare the mind to a pan of water which can reflect things accurately or inaccurately, an analogy that seems related (Xunzi ibid. p. 131, ch. 25, Knoblock trans. 1999, p. 799; Zhuangzi, Watson trans., Complete Works, p. 97). In medieval China, which I know much less about, I noticed Wang Yangming saying such a comparison was commonplace (Instructions for Practical Living, Chan trans., p. 45).

So my question is, for those of you who know more Chinese philosophy than I, are there other passages I should be looking at -- either on perspectival shape or size distortion or on analogies for visual experience? I'm revising the essay for a book chapter and I'd like to expand my discussion to China if I can find enough material. Any help would be much appreciated!

(I also wouldn't mind more help on Greek passages, too, if anyone has the inclination. Some of the more obvious passages are Plato's discussion of painters in the Republic and Sophist, Aristotle's discussion of sensory experience as like impressions in wax, Sextus's lists of sensory distortions in experience and his discussions of wax impressions, Epicurus's discussions of the transmission of images, discussions of the sun as looking "one foot wide", and Euclid's and Ptolemy's optics.)

Friday, December 05, 2008

Being Thirsty and Thinking You're Thirsty

Here's a passage from David Velleman's recent essay, "The Way of the Wanton" that caught my attention (earning a rare four hm's in the margin, plus a question mark and exclamation point):

Attentively reflecting on one's thirst entails standing back from it, for several reasons. First, the content of one's reflective thoughts is not especially expressive of the motive on which one is reflecting: "I am thirsty" is not an especially thirsty thought, not necessarily the the thought of someone thinking thirstily. Second, attentive reflection is itself an activity -- a mental activity -- and, as such, it requires a motive, which, of course, is not thirst. Reflecting on one's thirst is, therefore, a distraction from acting on one's thirst, and in that respect is even a distraction from being thirsty. Most importantly, though, consciousness just seems to open a gulf between subject and object, even when its object is the subject himself. Consciousness seems to have the structure of vision, requiring its object to stand across from the viewer -- to occupy the position of the Gegenstand (p. 181, emphasis in original).
Let's go one point at a time.

Does reflecting on thirst entail "standing back" from it? It's not clear what this metaphor means, though Velleman's subsquent three reasons help clarify. But before we get to those reasons, let's just wallow in the metaphor a bit: Standing back from one's thirst. I don't want to be too unsympathetic here. The metaphor is inviting in a way. But I at least don't feel I have the kind of rigorous understanding I'd want of this idea, as a philosopher.

On to the reasons:

(1.) Per Velleman: "I am thirsty" is not an especially thirsty thought, not necessarily the thought of something thinking thirstily.

Walking across campus, I see a water fountain. The sentence "Damn, I'm thirsty!" springs to mind as I head for a drink. Is this not a thirsty thought? It seems reflective of thirst; it probably reinforces the thirst and helps push along the thirst-quenching behavior -- so it's thirsty enough, I'd say. Is it not a thought, then -- or at least not a thought in the self-reflective sense Velleman evidently has in mind here? Maybe, for example, it's simply expressive and not introspective, an outburst like "ow!" when you stub your toe, but as it were an inner outburst? (Is that too oxymoronic?)

So let's try it more introspectively. As it happens, I've been introspecting my thirst quite a bit in writing this post, and despite having had a drink just a few minutes ago I find myself almost desperately thirsty....

Okay, I'm back. (Yes, I dashed off to the fountain.)

All right, I just don't get this point. Or I do get it and it just seems plain wrong.

(2.) Per Velleman: Attentive reflection is a mental activity that requires a motive, which is of course not thirst. It's a distraction both from acting on one's thirst and from being thirsty.

Does mental activity require a motive? If an image of a Jim wearing a duck-hat comes to mind unbidden as I talk to Jim, need there be a motive? (Or is that not "mental activity"?) And even if there is a motive for reflecting on one's thirst, why can't that motive sometimes be thirst itself? For example, reflecting on my thirst might be a means to achieving drink -- for example, it might help ensure that I order something to drink at the restaurant. And as such, it needn't be a distraction from acting on one's thirst; it might be part of so acting. And finally, is it a distraction from being thirsty? Well, not in my experience! Darn, I'm getting thirsty again! I can imagine a kind of contemplative attention to one's thirst (as to one's pain) that in a certain way renders that thirst (or pain) less compelling. Maybe something like that is achieved in certain sorts of meditation. But that doesn't seem to me the standard case.

(3.) Per Velleman: Consciousness opens a gulf between subject and object, requiring its object to stand across from the viewer.

Huh? There's nothing wrong with metaphor per se, but they're hard to work with when you don't see eye to eye. Velleman develops the metaphor a bit in the next paragraph: As a subject of thirst, thirst is not in one's "field of view" -- rather things like water-fountains are. In self-reflection, one's thirst is in the field of view. Now this seems to me mainly a way of saying that one is not thinking about one's thirst in the first case and one is thinking about it in the second. (Is there more to it than that? If so, tell me.) But then that brings us back to the issue in (2): Is there a competition, as Velleman seems to believe, between feeling thirst and acting thirsty, on the one hand, and thinking about one's thirst on the other hand? Or do the two normally complement and co-operate?

Can we venture an empirical prediction here? If I suggest to subjects that think about whether they are thirsty, then set them free, will they be more or less likely to stop by the fountain on their way out than subjects I invite to think about something else? I'm pretty sure which way this one will turn out. Now I suspect this test wouldn't be fair to Velleman for some reason. (Maybe the suggestion will also affect thirst itself and not just reflection on it?) So if one of you is sympathetic to him, maybe you can help me out....

By the way, did I mention that this is a delightful and engaging article?