Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Philosophy and Physics, Or Something

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Okay, I’m going o try to get to a bunch of stuff in turn.

Robert asks why, just because the  Founding  Fathers knew Greek, Roman and even English history, that should mean that philosophy and literature should be in the core curriculum.

But the Founding  Fathers didn’t just know the history.  They knew the philosophy as well, and they knew it thoroughly.  What’s more, they knew the extentions of that philosophy that had recently appeared in English philosophy–they knew John Locke, they knew the arguments in defense of freedom of the speech and press that had been made by  Milton and others.

The America they founded was an exercise in philosophy, and they knew it.  Some of the best political philosophy ever written was written in the run-up to the establishment of the Constitution.  Histor was what the used to test their political ideas against reality–to the extent they were able to, they tried to find what had and hadn’t worked in the past, so that they would know what would and wouldn’t work in the present.

But philosophy was still what they were doing, and philosophy was still what they were founding a country on.   And that was a good thing and a bad one, which I really mean to get to some time later.

But the reasons for philosophy and literature to be in the core curriculum are obviousL  because they are both part of what makes us us, and uniquely us, and it requires being uniquely us to produe the science you’re so fond of.

Philosophy is the story of how we first came to decide that all the questions in life–about the natural world, about ethics, about government, you name it–could be understood by approaching them on the basis of evidence, and with their causes restricted to the materials to be found in this world. 

Philosophy is not religion precisely because it does not allow for “God says so,” or for supernatural forces to control and direct what we do and think.  

Literature we study for two reasons.

First, because Western literature, like all the literatures that have ever existed, is the narrative that defines this civilization.  Civilizational definition always occurs in narrative.

But second, Western literature provides something unique in world literatures, and that is a sweeping, comprehensive and detailed account of the full range of human nature in action.   If we were doing more of it, it might save us from the “bitterness dysphoric disorder,” or whatever it was.

(Hi< Cathy–I’m going to go look this up in a minute, but I thought the psychiatrists were the Freudians, and the DSM was the manual that decided things like the definition of  ADHD, which doesn’t sound like a Feudian definition.  Never mind, I’ll get back to that later.)

Anyway, John asked about the predictive qualities of the  Humanities.  I think he’s restricting the definition of “predictive” too much.

Back at the time when DNA was discovered, some guy in England wrote out a list of 11 things that would have to be true about DNA if Darwin was right and evolution was a fact. 

Over the next twenty years, all of those 11 things turned out to be true.   That’s pretty damned predictive, even if it isn’t predticting a future event. 

As for the particular issue you were dealing with–I think you’d have to frame the issue differently than you’re doing.

The Bill of Rights in the US Constitution exists to protect the minorities from the majorities.  The point of it is precisely to stop majority rule in some areas, to allow “majorities of one” in speech and conscience, for instance.

This is actually a more interesting question than you realize.   For instance, for the Greeks, the concept of “freedom” was defined almost entirely as one of self-determination.  A city-state was free if its citizens could vote to do whatever they wanted to do, without being imposed upon either by a king or a foreign power.

This had some very interesting side effects, of which the best known is certainly the execution of Socrates.  And that was more complicated than it looked on the surface.   This was not Attica they imprisoned Socrates in.  He could easily have simply left town and saved himself in the process, and we’ve got decent evidence that this is what the citizens of  Athens expected him to do.   His refusal to do so (in the Apology? I’m sorry.  I can’t remember this morning.  I slept in, never a good idea with me.) is one of the more distinctive philosophical discussions of the nature of an individual’s obligation to his country out there.  And it’s lent force by the fact that Socrates did not abscond, but lived out–or died for–what he had decied was true.

Political philosophers in  England knew Socrates, and they also knew most of the discussion that came after him, of what a man (or woman–in Christianity, women were held responsible for their consciences to exactly the same extent as men) owed the sovereign who ruled him.  Christianity said that men were required to obey their superiors in “all things that are not contrary to the will of God,” which is a squishier concept than it appears to be on the surface.

That’s especially true in Christianity, where salvation is supposed to rest on faith, and that leaves open the question of “faith in what?” 

Put all of the above together with Martin Luther–try The Freedom of a Christian–who argued that each man was given the competence to interpret scripture for himself, and then a near century of blood religious wars, and you land at John Locke, desperately trying to get it all into one package. 

The resulting package was the US Bill of  Rights, which exists because the FFs took from the philosophy they knew and the history they knew a firm conviction:  the majority will beat the crap out of the minorities if they get half a chance.  The only way to stop that from happening is to deprive the majority of certain kinds of power altogether.

I don’t think the US Supreme Court is a panel of gods who can do no wrong.  I think they have decided wrongly any number of times, and I certainly think that they go overboard now and then.

But the overboard seems to right itself over time, and I’m less worried about that than I am about another question: given the truth that there will always be new wrinkles on old passions, that some people will always be out to crush the freedom of speech, press and conscience of people with “bad” ideas, what system, with or without a Bill of Rights, is most likely to stop them?

Right now,  I’m much more worried about expansive “hate speech” legislation–the prosecution of Oriana Fallaci in Italy, a couple of things that have happened in Australia, including one n which some pastor was convicted of a hate crime because he quoted the Koran; proposals in the UK and the UN to make it a crime to “insult” somebody else’s religion–than  I am about the silly pettiness of which songs we get to sing at the Christmas (winter!) concert. 

So far, the US Bill of Rights has successfully beaten back the hate speech juggernaut.  You can’t be prosecuted for hate speech at all, and “hate crimes” are things that are already crimes (like murder or assault) for which you can get an extra couple of years added to your sentence if your motive was one form of bigotry or another.

I’m not happy with even that, but it’s a far cry from the Fallaci persecution, or the one against Hollebeq (sp?) in France.

John said some interesting things about modern philosophers and truth and justice, which  I want to get to tomorrow.

But first–Lee, yes, of course, there are lots of places you can go to get a thorough grounding in the Humanities without having to go back to school.

If this was thirty years ago, I’d suggest you start with Will and Ariel Durant’s eleven-volume The Story of  Civilization.   It’s now out of print and costs a mint, although you might be able to get it through the library or on inter library loan.  I read my way through it over the course of six years–in which  I was also reading everything else–when I was in junior jigh and high school.  My father had a set which I still have around the house. 

But there are lots of places to start with this.  I even have one up on the web site, under the section called Reading and Writing.  I think I may have posted a link to it in the early days of the blog.  It’s called The Western Canon According to Me.

You might look up the work of Jacques Barzun, who has a couple of books out meant to give an overview of civiliation as we know it, or don’t know it, as the case may be. 

And if you want to spend money, there are excellent courses on DVD and audio tape from The Teaching Company and The Great Courses. 

Any of these things, plus dozens of sites on the web, can give you preliminary reading lists of the basic works in the Humanities.   Nobody has read them all.  Nobody could.  But once you have the outline you can follow your incliinations.  If you’re like me, some things will make you nuts.  Hegel is vitally important to understanding an entire sequence of events in the West–the rise of Messianic politics, of Naziism, fascism and Communism; Hegel is the Apostle of Totalitarianism–but h is prose is so turgid and his passion for jargon so intense, he just makes me want to scream.

I’ll look around and see if I can’t find some good links to post to general overviews.  I know that the eople who run the AP course program have some good ones, although some of them go out of sequence for some reason or the other.

And now I’m going to go look up the DSM again.  I’m goin to get back to Gail’s statues one of these days.

Written by janeh

June 23rd, 2009 at 9:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Philosophy and Physics, Or Something'

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  1. In Canada, at least, psychiatrists are the ones with MD plus successful completion of a residency program. They can write prescriptions. Psychologists qualify through the BA (or BSc), MA (or MSc), and PhD route, and might do anything from study the behaviour of overcrowded rats to counselling of various kinds. They can’t write prescriptions. I seem to recall having a higher degree doesn’t mean a psychologist gets better results when counselling people.

    Either category could include Freudians, I suppose, although I think technically in order to become a Freudian analyst you have to be analyzed yourself, which would add another twist to the lengthy training period for psychiatrists, if not psychologists. In my limited experience, psychiatrists don’t go in for analysis, they hand out pills and, if they think the patient needs to talk to someone, refer them to a social worker or psychologist – preferably one who isn’t trying to figure out how neurotransmitters affect anxiety in rats, but who has some training and experience in talking with troubled people.

    Mostly I agree with you on philosophy and hate speech, so I can’t think of anything else to say right now.


    23 Jun 09 at 10:15 am

  2. Just a note.

    Jane wrote
    “If this was thirty years ago, I’d suggest you start with Will and Ariel Durant’s eleven-volume The Story of Civilization. It’s now out of print and costs a mint, ”

    I checked amazon and used copies of the whole set are avaukabke for about $100.

    John said some interesting things about modern philosophers and truth and justice, which I want to get to tomorrow.

    That was in a letter to Jane, But she should feel free to quote or paraphase me. :)


    23 Jun 09 at 2:25 pm

  3. Perhaps one reason for studying Philosophy along with History is to learn the danger of ideas. Paul Jonhson’s book “Intellectuals” is full of people who tried to build social systems on faulty principles.

    LOgid says A believes P is true. A believes IF P, then Q, therefore A should believe Q.

    Johnson shows that History says trying to build a sociual system on Q without checking whether P is true leads to disaster.


    23 Jun 09 at 5:18 pm

  4. Shrinks: the Canadian standard holds in the US, too. Psychiatrists are real MDs. Psychologists establish mental disorders in the APA Handbook, and whether you are disturbed or not can come down to a close vote in their convention.

    Philosophy. I’m sorry, but if observing reality and drawing conclusions is all that’s required, I’ve been practicing philosophy without a license for years. But can that definition be stretched to include Plato, Rousseau, Hegel and Nietzche, none of whom are noted for actually checking their diktats against reality?

    I don’t say philosophy can’t be stretched to include some interesting and useful writing, but Locke seems better placed with Hobbes, Parkinson’s EVOLUTION OF POLITICAL THOUGHT or even PJ O’Rourke–and wherever that is, it’s not the center of Philosophy, though it could be off in the hinterland.

    Reason leads to conclusions. If debate continues unendingly, either there is inadequate evidence, or the problem is a matter of taste, not reason. (A lot of philosophy, even some I like, seems to be a veneer of reason over a core of taste.)

    As for Literature, a few months ago it was worth studying for its own sake–like dance and porcelain–and we were to study the best specimens of each type. I say again, the best written story of a type is not necessarily the civilization-defining narrative. The lists may overlap, but they are not the same–maybe not even close.

    If we’re only talking preferences, fine. But if we’re saying you need to read these works to be considered educated, to graduate from a university, and–by implication–to teach anything at a university, we should have and apply a consistent standard. It has to do with observing and reasoning, and not saying “because the English Department says so.”


    23 Jun 09 at 6:27 pm

  5. Jane, thank you very much for your suggestions. Most of the materials are available at the library, so cost isn’t a problem.

    I have read a few of the Durant books. Some years ago, I read (darned if I can remember where, I read about books all the time in my profession) that much of the information in them had been superseded by subsequent scholarship. I don’t know if that’s really true, if it’s because they are no longer politically correct, if the writer just didn’t like popularizers, or what. Have you heard anything about it?

    Lee B

    23 Jun 09 at 9:18 pm

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