March 8, 2007

I saw a Chinese movie called “Together” (2003). I recommend it — good movie. A boy who is a gifted violinist has two different violin teachers: one who can put him on the road to fame and fortune, and one who says that a musician should enjoy playing music. His father, a peasant from the countryside, wants his son to gain fame and fortune, so he prefers the first teacher. As for the boy.... well, I don’t want to spoil it for you. The plot draws you along, and comes together neatly at the end. Some good classical-music scenes.

1. Is Rationalism Conservative Or Liberal?

For the last year or two, I’ve been arguing that the most fundamental distinction in philosophy is the distinction between rational philosophy and non-rational philosophy. I’ve been taking the side of non-rational philosophy, and opposing rational philosophy. Does this distinction have any political import? Do rational philosophers, for example, tend to be liberal? Do non-rational philosophers tend to be conservative?

Traditional conservatives tend to be wary of reason, but today’s conservatives tend to be fond of reason. One traditional conservative who was wary of reason was Edmund Burke. Burke criticized the French revolutionaries for following reason, and for ignoring customs and traditions. In Burke’s day, The Left followed reason, and advocated revolution to overthrow regimes that didn’t live up to the dictates of reason. Burke cautioned against revolution, and the bloodshed that accompanied the French Revolution seemed to vindicate Burke’s attitude.

Like the French revolutionaries, Marx and his disciples followed reason, and advocated revolution. The bloodshed that accompanied Marxist regimes in Russia, China, Cambodia, etc. seemed to vindicate the conservative view that reason was a dangerous guide in the political arena.

The English Radicals of the early 1800s — Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, etc. — didn’t spill blood, but they strengthen the argument that The Left was fond of reason, and fond of revolutionary change.

In the mid-20th century, the British writer Michael Oakeshott continued the conservative tradition of Burke. Oakeshott’s book Rationalism in Politics argues that rational thinking begets utopian schemes and radical policies. An observer of academia would conclude that Oakeshott’s view is correct, since academia has a clear tendency toward liberal thinking, coupled with an equally clear tendency toward rational thinking, as shown by its horror of the occult.

In our time, however, a new tendency has emerged. The Straussian School, which includes prominent conservatives like Bill Kristol and Harvey Mansfield, is fond of reason but takes a conservative approach to politics. While Burke cautioned against revolution, today’s conservatives advocated regime change, revolutionary change, in Iraq. Now it’s The Right that talks about Universal Principles (as the French revolutionaries once did), and The Left that talks about respecting customs and traditions (as Burke once did). Hopefully, The Iraq Project will turn out well, but so far it has produced the sort of bloodshed that rationalistic policies produced before.

Should we conclude that rationalism doesn’t necessarily lead to a particular approach to politics, that rationalism can be conservative or liberal? Or is the current situation an anomaly? Will the long-standing link between rationalism and The Left re-assert itself, and relegate the Straussian position to the status of a footnote?

2. Kierkegaard and the Philosophy of Today

Is there any connection between the Philosophy of Kierkegaard and the Philosophy of Today? At first glance, no. Kierkegaard was a passionate Christian, while the Philosophy of Today has more interest in Zen than in Christianity. A close look at Kierkegaard, however, reveals a surprising number of parallels between his philosophy and the Philosophy of Today. Both philosophies

  1. are wary of reason
  2. emphasize the inner life, not politics
  3. believe that the individual should find his own religion, not take it ready-made
  4. respect art and literary values
  5. contain no moralizing, no categorical imperative

Kierkegaard speaks of the “suspension of the ethical” in the name of religion. Kierkegaard recommended living by spontaneous feelings, not rational principles: “It is acting ‘on principle’ which does away with the vital distinction which constitutes decency. For decency is immediate.... It has its seat in feeling and in the impulse and consistency of an inner enthusiasm. ‘On principle’ one can do anything.”1

3. PEAR: An Obituary

PEAR has closed. PEAR stands for “Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research”. An article in the New York Times described PEAR as “a Princeton lab on ESP,” and said that, “Over almost three decades, a small laboratory at Princeton University managed to embarrass university administrators, outrage Nobel laureates, entice the support of philanthropists and make headlines around the world with its efforts to prove that thoughts can alter the course of events.”2

PEAR aroused opposition from academics who are uncomfortable with the occult, and don’t want their worldview turned on its head. The Times quoted one scholar who said, “We know people have ideas beyond the mainstream but if they want funds for research they have to go through peer review, and the system is going to be very skeptical of ideas that are inconsistent with what is already known.” (In an earlier issue, I questioned the “peer review” concept.) PEAR reminds one of the Rhine Research Center at Duke, which studied ESP, irritated the academic establishment, and was ejected from Duke.

The director of PEAR was a prominent scientist, Robert Jahn. Dean Radin mentioned Jahn and his lab in his book, The Conscious Universe. Jahn is a member of the Society for Scientific Exploration, a Society that tries to support iconoclastic thinking; many PEAR experiments were published in that Society’s journal. The Society’s website says that it

seeks to promote the improved understanding of the central role that anomalies have played in advancing scholarly knowledge throughout the history of science and of the human tendencies that can limit the scope of scientific inquiry, such as restrictive world views, unrecognized theoretical assumptions, and dogmatic approaches to the interpretation of empirical evidence.

4. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Our book group is now reading Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller, Blink. After Blink, we’re going to read Ibsen’s play, Emperor and Galilean, which will prepare us for our next book, Steven Sage’s Ibsen and Hitler.

I enjoyed Blink immensely. It’s short, clear, and readable. I’m interested in the major thesis, and I’m also interested in the stories that Gladwell tells to support his thesis. Since I’m a champion of the classics, I hate to admit how enjoyable a contemporary bestseller can be. Blink was difficult for me to put down, it made me late for appointments.

Since it takes a dim view of rational thinking, Blink dovetails with what I call the Philosophy of Today. But while Gladwell’s conclusions are similar to mine, his approach is entirely different: he draws his evidence from the contemporary scene, and from academic research, whereas I draw my evidence from literary and historical sources. Also, I discuss not only the power of unconscious thinking, but also the power of the occult, and the mysterious forces in every corner of the universe. Gladwell, on the other hand, steers clear of the occult, even speaks scornfully of it on occasion. Furthermore, Gladwell only talks about people, he doesn’t try to connect man to the universe, he doesn’t try to connect psychology to physics, as I do.

Gladwell discusses a fireman who used rapid cognition, non-rational thinking, to escape danger and save his comrades. The fireman ordered everyone out of a building just before it collapsed. Gladwell quotes Gary Klein, a “decision-making expert”:

“‘[The fireman] didn’t know why he had ordered everyone out.... He believed it was ESP. He was serious. He thought he had ESP, and he felt that because of that ESP, he’d been protected throughout his career.” Klein is a decision researcher with a Ph.D., a deeply intelligent and thoughtful man, and wasn’t about to accept that as an answer.3

Notice Gladwell’s scorn for the occult, for ESP. Gladwell goes on to argue that this was a case of unconscious thinking, not ESP.

Gladwell discusses a Greek statue purchased by the Getty Museum. Before buying the statue, the museum had lawyers evaluate documents pertaining to it, and they had a geologist evaluate the marble in it. The geologist was so proud of his evaluation that he published an article about it in Scientific American. The lawyers and the geologist said it was a bona fide antique, but it turned out to be a forgery. Gladwell mentions several experts who “smelled a rat” as soon as they saw the statue. The museum, however, put its faith in the lawyers and the geologist who took a rational approach, rather than the art experts who had hunches, intuitions.

Gladwell mentions our old friend Bernard Berenson, who also used a non-rational approach when evaluating art works:

[Berenson] sometimes distressed his colleagues with his inability to articulate how he could see so clearly the tiny defects and inconsistencies in a particular work.... In one court case, in fact, Berenson was able to say only that his stomach felt wrong. He had a curious ringing in his ears. He was struck by a momentary depression.... Hardly scientific descriptions of how he knew he was in the presence of something cooked up or faked. But that’s as far as he was able to go.4

Gladwell says that the investor George Soros also makes decisions based on hunches, back pains, etc.

One chapter in Blink is called “Kenna’s Dilemma: The Right — and Wrong — Way to Ask People What They Want.” When I started reading this chapter, I had never heard of Kenna. Now I realize that Kenna is a rock star. Gladwell says that when Kenna was getting started, his music was popular with people in the music industry, but the general public didn’t like his music — at least, they didn’t like it when they were asked to evaluate it. Gladwell describes soda companies and furniture companies who had similar problems: initial tests said, “no good, I don’t like it,” but eventually the public liked it. So the question is, “how can you test what people really like? Does a sip of soda tell you what kind of soda people really like? Does a snippet of music suffice to test a musician’s popularity?” How can people be taught to like something that seems strange at first? Coleridge said that radically new poetry “must create the taste whereby it is appreciated.”

I’m reminded of the reception of Proust’s work: initially people said, “I can’t stand it, I clutched my head in pain,” but gradually Proust found a following, and now he’s popular the world over. As Gladwell says, “testing products or ideas that are truly revolutionary [is difficult] and the most successful companies are those that understand that in those cases, the first impressions of their consumers need interpretation.”5 As for Kenna, “his music was new and different, and it is the new and different that is always most vulnerable to market research.”6 Proust would agree.

Proust would also agree when Gladwell sings the praises of non-rational thinking. After all, one of Proust’s key experiences was eating a cookie that awakened unconscious memories, vivid memories. Proust says that a conscious effort to recall the past is less effective than an accidental recalling that is triggered by a taste or smell.

The last chapter of Blink is called “Seven Seconds in the Bronx: The Delicate Art of Mind Reading.” It discusses the Amadou Diallo case, in which an unarmed black man was shot and killed by four white policemen. It talks about how people with autism can’t read faces, and how people under extreme stress are also unable to read faces. In the Diallo case, the policemen were under extreme stress, since they thought Diallo was armed and dangerous. The policemen failed to read Diallo’s facial expressions, failed to perceive that he was frightened rather than aggressive; stress had made the policemen autistic.

Gladwell says that stress raises our heart rate. Up to a certain point, this increases our competence, but beyond that point, we become incompetent. One policeman involved in a stressful shooting incident said, “[Time] had slowed down during the shooting. That started as soon as [the suspect] started toward us. Even though I knew he was running at us, it looked like he was moving in slow motion. Damnedest thing I ever saw.”7 Gladwell summarizes:

In interviews with police officers who have been involved with shootings, these same details appear again and again: extreme visual clarity, tunnel vision, diminished sound, and the sense that time is slowing down.... The basketball superstar Larry Bird used to say that at critical moments in the game, the court would go quiet and the players would seem to be moving in slow motion.8

Gladwell calls this state “the optimal range of arousal.”9 The slowing down of time, the sense that people are moving in slow motion.... isn’t this a remarkable example of the relativity of time?

When the heart rate rises above 145 beats per minute, this “optimal range” is exceeded, and mental and physical functioning begin to break down.

One of the most fascinating sections of Blink is the section about two students of facial expressions, Tomkins and Ekman (see chapter 6, section 2). Tomkins was the elder, who pioneered the field, Ekman the younger, who developed Tomkins’ ideas into a vast system. “Tomkins believed that faces... held valuable clues to inner emotions and motivations.... ‘He would watch the show To Tell the Truth, and without fail he could always pick out the people who were lying,’ his son Mark recalls. ‘He actually wrote the producer at one point to say it was too easy.’”

Ekman spent seven years studying facial muscles, all the possible expressions, and all the combinations thereof, eventually identifying 3,000 expressions. Ekman called his system the Facial Action Coding System (FACS).

FACS takes weeks to master in its entirety, and only five hundred people around the world have been certified to use it in research. But those who have mastered it gain an extraordinary level of insight into the messages we send each other when we look into one another’s eyes.... It has even been put to use by computer animators at Pixar (Toy Story) and DreamWorks (Shrek).

The work of Tomkins and Ekman will interest every student of human nature, every humanist. Surely Leonardo would devour Ekman’s book, if he were alive today. Ekman’s work will interest historians and biographers, especially those who are studying people who have been filmed.

Ekman recalled the first time he saw Bill Clinton, during the 1992 Democratic primaries. “I was watching his facial expressions, and I said to my wife, ‘This is Peck’s Bad Boy,’ Ekman said. “This is a guy who wants to be caught with his hand in the cookie jar and have us love him for it anyway. There was this expression that’s one of his favorites. It’s that hand-in-the-cookie-jar, love-me-Mommy-because-I’m-a-rascal look. It’s A.U. [Action-Unit] twelve, fifteen, seventeen, and twenty-four, with an eye roll.... [Ekman contacted the Clinton team, and advised a change of expression, but they didn’t follow his advice.] Unfortunately, I guess, he needed to get caught — and he got caught.”10

Going further back in history, Ekman studies a tape of the famous spy, Kim Philby:

Ekman rewound the tape and replayed it in slow motion. “Look at this,” he said, pointing to the screen. “Twice, after being asked serious questions about whether he’s committed treason, he’s going to smirk. He looks like the cat who ate the canary.” The expression came and went in no more than a few milliseconds. But at quarter speed it was painted on his face: the lips pressed together in a look of pure smugness. “He’s enjoying himself, isn’t he?” Ekman went on. “I call this ‘duping delight,’ the thrill you get from fooling other people.”11

5. Gentleman and Mudcat: Social Class in Huck Finn

I’m continuing Huck Finn. It’s a good book to read aloud — full of action and humor. It’s good for children, even better for adults. When H. L. Mencken was old and infirm, William Manchester read Huck Finn aloud to him. (When Manchester was 29, he wrote Disturber of the Peace: The Life of H. L. Mencken.)

Twain reminds me of Nietzsche insofar as he scorns the common man, and admires the aristocrat. This attitude is apparent early in the novel when he describes Huck’s father, who is from the lower class. Huck’s father is a vagrant and a drunk. Judge Thatcher takes him in, and tries to reform him:

Then they tucked the old man into a beautiful room, which was the spare room, and in the night some time he got powerful thirsty and clumb out on to the porch-roof and slid down a stanchion and traded his new coat for a jug of forty-rod, and clumb back again and had a good old time; and towards daylight he crawled out again, drunk as a fiddler, and rolled off the porch and broke his left arm in two places, and was most froze to death when somebody found him after sun-up. And when they come to look at that spare room they had to take soundings before they could navigate it.

The judge he felt kind of sore. He said he reckoned a body could reform the old man with a shotgun, maybe, but he didn’t know no other way.12

Twain’s description of the Arkansas rabble fairly drips with contempt:

All the stores was along one street. They had white domestic awnings in front.... There was empty drygoods boxes under the awnings, and loafers roosting on them all day long, whittling them with their Barlow knives; and chawing tobacco, and gaping and yawning and stretching — a mighty ornery lot. They generly had on yellow straw hats most as wide as an umbrella, but didn’t wear no coats nor waistcoats, they called one another Bill, and Buck, and Hank, and Joe, and Andy, and talked lazy and drawly, and used considerable many cuss words. There was as many as one loafer leaning up against every awning-post, and he most always had his hands in his britches-pockets, except when he fetched them out to lend a chaw of tobacco or scratch.

Now listen to Huck’s description of Col. Grangerford:

Col. Grangerford was a gentleman, you see. He was a gentleman all over; and so was his family. He was well born, as the saying is, and that’s worth as much in a man as it is in a horse, so the Widow Douglas said, and nobody ever denied that she was of the first aristocracy in our town; and pap he always said it, too, though he warn’t no more quality than a mudcat himself. Col. Grangerford was very tall and very slim, and had a darkish-paly complexion, not a sign of red in it anywheres; he was clean shaved every morning all over his thin face, and he had the thinnest kind of lips, and the thinnest kind of nostrils, and a high nose, and heavy eyebrows, and the blackest kind of eyes, sunk so deep back that they seemed like they was looking out of caverns at you, as you may say. His forehead was high, and his hair was black and straight and hung to his shoulders. His hands was long and thin, and every day of his life he put on a clean shirt and a full suit from head to foot made out of linen so white it hurt your eyes to look at it; and on Sundays he wore a blue tail-coat with brass buttons on it. He carried a mahogany cane with a silver head to it. There warn’t no frivolishness about him, not a bit, and he warn’t ever loud. He was as kind as he could be — you could feel that, you know, and so you had confidence. Sometimes he smiled, and it was good to see; but when he straightened himself up like a liberty-pole, and the lightning begun to flicker out from under his eyebrows, you wanted to climb a tree first, and find out what the matter was afterwards. He didn’t ever have to tell anybody to mind their manners — everybody was always good-mannered where he was. Everybody loved to have him around, too; he was sunshine most always — I mean he made it seem like good weather. When he turned into a cloudbank it was awful dark for half a minute, and that was enough; there wouldn’t nothing go wrong again for a week.13

Twain’s hero-aristocrats always stand alone, against the mob; they never appear in twos or threes. They have a particular physical appearance, and occupy a particular place in society — often a judge, in this case an officer (colonel). Later in the novel, we meet another colonel, Colonel Sherburn, who is being taunted by the local drunk, Boggs:

And so he went on, calling Sherburn everything he could lay his tongue to, and the whole street packed with people listening and laughing and going on. By and by a proud-looking man about fifty-five — and he was a heap the best dressed man in that town, too — steps out of the store, and the crowd drops back on each side to let him come. He says to Boggs, mighty ca’m and slow — he says: “I’m tired of this, but I’ll endure it till one o’clock. Till one o’clock, mind — no longer. If you open your mouth against me only once after that time you can’t travel so far but I will find you.” Then he turns and goes in. The crowd looked mighty sober; nobody stirred, and there warn’t no more laughing.14

Sherburn shoots Boggs, killing him. A lynch mob goes after Sherburn:

They swarmed up towards Sherburn’s house, a-whooping and raging like Injuns, and everything had to clear the way or get run over and tromped to mush, and it was awful to see....

They swarmed up in front of Sherburn’s palings as thick as they could jam together, and you couldn’t hear yourself think for the noise. It was a little twenty-foot yard. Some sung out “Tear down the fence! tear down the fence!” Then there was a racket of ripping and tearing and smashing, and down she goes, and the front wall of the crowd begins to roll in like a wave.

Just then Sherburn steps out on to the roof of his little front porch, with a double-barrel gun in his hand, and takes his stand, perfectly ca’m and deliberate, not saying a word. The racket stopped, and the wave sucked back.

Sherburn never said a word — just stood there, looking down. The stillness was awful creepy and uncomfortable. Sherburn run his eye slow along the crowd; and wherever it struck the people tried a little to out-gaze him, but they couldn’t; they dropped their eyes and looked sneaky. Then pretty soon Sherburn sort of laughed; not the pleasant kind, but the kind that makes you feel like when you are eating bread that’s got sand in it.

Then he says, slow and scornful:

“The idea of YOU lynching anybody! It’s amusing. The idea of you thinking you had pluck enough to lynch a MAN! Because you’re brave enough to tar and feather poor friendless cast-out women that come along here, did that make you think you had grit enough to lay your hands on a MAN? Why, a MAN’S safe in the hands of ten thousand of your kind — as long as it’s daytime and you’re not behind him.

“Do I know you? I know you clear through was born and raised in the South, and I’ve lived in the North; so I know the average all around. The average man’s a coward. In the North he lets anybody walk over him that wants to, and goes home and prays for a humble spirit to bear it. In the South one man all by himself, has stopped a stage full of men in the daytime, and robbed the lot. Your newspapers call you a brave people so much that you think you are braver than any other people — whereas you’re just AS brave, and no braver. Why don’t your juries hang murderers? Because they’re afraid the man’s friends will shoot them in the back, in the dark — and it’s just what they WOULD do.

“So they always acquit; and then a MAN goes in the night, with a hundred masked cowards at his back and lynches the rascal. Your mistake is, that you didn’t bring a man with you; that’s one mistake, and the other is that you didn’t come in the dark and fetch your masks. You brought PART of a man — Buck Harkness, there — and if you hadn’t had him to start you, you’d a taken it out in blowing....

The pitifulest thing out is a mob; that’s what an army is — a mob; they don’t fight with courage that’s born in them, but with courage that’s borrowed from their mass, and from their officers. But a mob without any MAN at the head of it is BENEATH pitifulness. Now the thing for YOU to do is to droop your tails and go home and crawl in a hole. If any real lynching’s going to be done it will be done in the dark, Southern fashion; and when they come they’ll bring their masks, and fetch a MAN along. Now LEAVE — and take your half-a-man with you” — tossing his gun up across his left arm and cocking it when he says this.

The crowd washed back sudden, and then broke all apart, and went tearing off every which way, and Buck Harkness he heeled it after them, looking tolerable cheap. I could a stayed if I wanted to, but I didn’t want to.15

In addition to Colonel Grangerford and Colonel Sherburn, another character who is favorably portrayed is Dr. Robinson. Again we see the high position in society (doctor), again we see the aristocratic appearance (“a big iron-jawed man”16). When the two rapscallions (whom Huck refers to as the king and the duke) pretend to be the heirs of Peter Wilks, Dr. Robinson realizes that they’re frauds, and laughs in their face. The crowd, however, sides with the king and the duke. When the king and the duke talk privately, the duke says he’s worried about Dr. Robinson, but the king says, “Cuss the doctor! What do we k’yer for HIM? Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?”17 Twain’s contempt for the majority reminds one of Ibsen’s Dr. Stockman (as well as Nietzsche). Likewise, Twain’s belief that breeding is “worth as much in a man as it is in a horse”18 reminds one of Stockman.

When the king and the duke put on a nonsense-show called The Royal Nonesuch, the crowd is angry until “a big, fine looking man” addresses them, and suggests a response to the swindle.19 Later we learn that the “big, fine looking man” is a judge.

Notice how Twain emphasizes that his hero-aristocrats are “big,” “very tall,” etc. I’m reminded of a chapter in Gladwell’s Blink, a chapter in which he discusses how people are impressed by stature, and often choose tall men to fill high positions. “In the U.S. population,” Gladwell writes, “about 14.5 percent of all men are six feet or taller. Among CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, that number is 58 percent.... Most of us... automatically associate leadership ability with imposing physical stature.”20

© L. James Hammond 2007
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1. The Present Age back
2. New York Times, February 10, 2007 back
3. ch. 4, #3 back
4. Ch. 2, introductory back
5. Ch. 5, #4. Coleridge quote is from The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes, Ch. 10, footnote. back
6. ibid back
7. ch. 6, #5 back
8. ibid back
9. ibid back
10. ch. 6, #2. In case you’re wondering “who is Peck?” here’s some information I found on the Internet:
Peck’s Bad Boy was the fictional star of newspaper stories and books created by George W. Peck in the late 1800s. Hennery (or Henry) Peck was a mischievous lad who loved to play sneaky pranks on others, especially his father, for the sheer pleasure of creating mayhem. The stories were a huge hit in their era, and the name Peck’s Bad Boy became a popular term for any incorrigible rule-breaker. George Peck collected his stories into several books, most notably Peck’s Bad Boy and His Pa (1883). back
11. ch. 6, #3 back
12. Ch. 5 back
13. Ch. 18 back
14. Ch. 21 back
15. Ch. 22 back
16. Ch. 25 back
17. Ch. 26 back
18. Ch. 18, quoted above back
19. Ch. 23 back
20. see ch. 3, #2 back