Archive for ‘Learnings’

October 9, 2016

On interpreting music and religion

Interpreting a Beethoven sonata well is not an easy task. In reading Alfred Brendel’s essays on the topic in Music, Sense and Nonsense, I learned something about the process which struck me: it is the same exacting process as interpreting a religious text — one that requires access to the earliest manuscripts, an understanding of the expressive abilities of the notations of that time, an imaginative ability to extract the author’s intentions in order to correct mistakes and fill in blanks, and the intelligence to translate the work into something a contemporary audience will acknowledge is beautiful and eternal. Beethoven himself could write down the wrong note, forget to rework a hand in light of changes in the other; his editors could introduce mistakes or add their own misguided remarks; a semiquaver or sforzando might long have been interpreted too narrowly or against the grain; and a long-standing, bland classical performance might be due to reading the mere absence of accentuation as a prescription. Up to this point, the musician of the twentieth century is but following in the footsteps of the earlier century’s exegetical theologians. Where Brendel’s art exceeds today’s theologies is in his humble recognition that the value of an interpretation lies in how deeply it respects the original text, though only in order to extract from it those eternal truths and beauties which today will compel the audience’s assent.

October 2, 2016

What i’ve learned about ethics from trimming my plant

When my father gave me a few  new plants last year as I moved into my new apartment, he told me to water them in proportion to their leaf surface, since it is the leaves that breathe, and hence exhale water. I’ve stuck to that bit of advice and it has served me, or rather the plants, well.

One of the plants, however, grew quickly and I soon needed to trim it. At first I simply cut off entire branches that stuck out too far, or trimmed their tops if they had grown too tall. But the branches never grew back, leaving gaping bare sections, and each trimmed top grew two new sprouts, weighing the branch down even further until it broke under its own weight. So I attempted a new strategy: i began to cut the branches off mid-way. Now the plant looks less bare, and instead of doubling the tips, new leaves grow along the full length of the shorter branches.

The traditional moral of this story might be that in practical matters, since we cannot understand every element of complex systems, we must resort to rules-of-thumb, and tinker at the edges. However, i whish to suggest another conclusion: in horticulture as in ethics — or politics, or economics — we must not define rules or laws, however approximate; instead, we should develop principles, which need only be adequate and exact, not approximate and true. And since such principles are not hazy laws, which must be applied with art and guesswork, they can be followed exactly, and steadily improved through experimentation.

April 24, 2015

From Heidegger i learned that technology has chained us to its dark view that the world is but a resource to be controlled—and that now we must somehow escape from this cavernous prison into the daylight of a greater truth. Perhaps, though, it is knowledge itself to which we have become too attached—and so instead we must set off with science, our most beloved child, having strapped every technology to its back, and ascend mount Moriah ready to sacrifice it.

January 31, 2015

The window pane

J’entendais, oiseau,
mais n’écoutais pas;
tu t’envolas.

[I could hear you, dear bird,
but wasn’t listening;
so you took off.]

[I’d heard the crows cawing, perhaps for hours, as they wintered on a neighbor’s tree, but only noticed when, passing a window, i saw their harsh tones blacken the sky and vanish.]

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November 15, 2014

From my readings this morning I learned that one should not love people for who they are (for their characteristics), but only in order to be loved in return.

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September 14, 2014

Theories of Democracy Part 6: Radical Pluralism

[Continuing Series on Frank Cunningham’s Theories of Democracy: A Critical Introduction (2002)]

Radical pluralism is a democratic theory put forward by such thinkers as Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau and Claude Lefort. It opposes liberal and deliberative democracy primarily in its insistence that rational consensus cannot be achieved, but that democracy must allow for healthy political clashes between voters whose positions are deeply held and fundamentally diverge. The philosophers are very suspicious of current democratic practices that seek to gloss over fundamental disagreements by switching the register of public discourse from political conflict to moral consensus.

A pollyty is based on a similar assessment of the necessity of political conflict, however, instead of trying to re-insert a healthy agon into the state’s democratic practices, the pollyty relocates those political disagreements away from the state onto a separate, higher level at which particular cultural and moral choices are no longer mutually exclusive. One pollyty can be thoroughly socialist, denying to its members the very notion of private property, while another could restrict itself to providing (capitalist) mutual insurance policies, another could essentially function as a union, whereas a fourth might provide guild-like educational and employment services. Moreover, an individual could potentially be a member of all four of those guilds. This is a marked advance over the agonistics of radical pluralism, which still requires that the state’s democratic process eventually decide upon one set of laws which must then be applied to the entire population.

September 12, 2014

Isaiah Berlin on Rousseau

Having recently found Isaiah Berlin’s Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty at my local bookstore, i decided to read through some of the essays in search of a healthy contrarian view. The chapter on Rousseau was tendentious and at times frankly ad hominem, but nevertheless worthwhile. (The other indictees in this little book are Helvétius, Fichte, Hegel, Saint-Simon and de Maistre.) Though Berlin objects primarily to the outcome of the philosophy (Hitler and Mussolini! — these are, after all, transcribed radio addresses from the early ’50s), his main contention is with “the mysterious assumption of the coincidence of authority and liberty” which is his gloss on Rousseau’s volonté générale.

Without attempting to defend Mr. Rousseau against Sir Berlin, i would nevertheless like to suggest how the Genevan’s bohemian “paradox” might be calmly explained to a gentleman and a scholar. One might think of this general will, as an instance of Harry Frankfurt’s second-order will. In agreeing to such a social contract, each individual is establishing a second-order will, namely, that e will want what the democratic institutions decide (because it is in es overall or long-term interest). Of course, this defense would be rather weak for large representative democracies as we know them today, but it should be remembered that Rousseau was advocating town-sized direct democracy, so every law was voted upon by every one (well, all eligible voters). Though this does not reduce the Contrat Social to an acceptable form of “negative liberty”, it does explain how one’s liberty might be reconciled with the authority of laws one has freely elected to follow.

Finally, i would like to point out a few modifications one might make to Rousseau’s idea, which would take it yet further towards something Sir Isaiah Berlin might find less objectionable. Two advances in our modern societies have made Rousseau’s general idea more palatable. One is the existence of liberal democracy and its rule of law. A Rousseauvian mini-democracy could easily sit atop this legal framework. This would add two further degrees of freedom: For one, such an association would no longer need to span a defined land area. This would make it much easier for people to leave the association should any of the laws passed not meet with their approval; exit would not require emigration. For another, being freed from maintaining the conditions of negative liberty, the associations could be truly voluntary, making entrance, as well as exit, a matter of individual choice. The second advance is the Internet and mobile computing devices, which add further degrees of simplicity. Associations can now be easily managed, significantly reducing the overhead of direct democracy, since the laws or rules can be automatically implemented by software, and voting requires only that one’s fingers do the traveling.

September 10, 2014

From Stephen Toulmin’s Cosmopolis i learned that the open-mindedness and liberality of Montaigne and Henri IV’s century was abruptly destroyed by the religious morass of the Thirty Years War and replaced in a panic by Descartes’ stubborn certainty and the Westphalian notion of an absolutely sovereign state. Luckily for us, the first of those modern follies is already ceding ground…

September 10, 2014

Theories of Democracy Part 5: Deliberative Democracy

[Continuing Series on Frank Cunningham’s Theories of Democracy: A Critical Introduction (2002)]

 Deliberative Democracy is described as the grandchild of Jürgen Habermas’ theory of communicative action. As such it is an attempt to avoid the problems of liberal democratic electioneering by substituting a principle of reasoned debate that should as much as possible reach a consensus, but which can employ voting when a decision is not forthcoming. Against liberalism, it sees the democratic process as one of changing people’s minds and preferences, not aggregating them.

If only due to their relatively small size, pollyties will naturally tend towards a more deliberative and consensual approach. Even if a pollyty is operated through software applications, and hence relies primarily upon voting for decision making, it can easily emulate a consensual process by instituting rules that apply a proposed change as soon as 60% or 90% of members have voted “yes” and none or very few have voted “no”. Moreover, since pollyties are voluntary and self-selecting (unlike nation states or government districts) they will also perhaps more easily reach consensus.

September 9, 2014

Theories of Democracy Part 4 and Excursus: Democratic Pragmatism

[Continuing Series on Frank Cunningham’s Theories of Democracy: A Critical Introduction (2002)]

Democratic Pragmatism is not so much another theory of democracy, according to Cunningham who is drawing primarily on Dewey, but more so an orientation towards the problems that arise within democracies. In particular, it pays attention to the scope, context and differing degrees of existing democratic institutions. This conforms well with the pollyty inasmuch as the pragmatic approach sees democratic possibilities in a wide range of institutions such as guilds, unions, associations, corporations and, of course, governments at all levels. Democracy will also look and behave differently depending on the cultural, social or economic situation in which people find themselves. Like a pollyty, also, such a pragmatic approach is not concerned with understanding perfectly democratic institutions, but merely how to make existing institutions a bit more democratic than they currently are.

This brings me to a tangent. Why are we striving for democratic solutions in the first place? All theories Cunningham has so far brought forth are concerned with justifying the desirability of democratic institutions, and doing so from the perspective of the (lone) individual. I do not believe the best form of government is democratic, though i could not exactly describe a better form of government. However, i would argue that we needn’t settle on a theory of justice or democracy only then to tweak our institutions into such a format. To channel Rawls, the first virtue of social institutions is not justice but malleability. If we can ensure that our institutions are flexible and respond well to their members’ desires, then they will naturally move towards something like justice, liberty and equality — though perhaps nothing that would exactly fit those three ideals.

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