Monday, 18 May 2015

Jennifer Nagel (2014) - Knowledge: A Very Short Introduction

Epistemology is a branch of philosophy involving the study of knowledge.  What is the different between knowing and believing?  How do we know that what we know is not something we dreamed up?

My books have been boxed up and are being moved to our new home.. new bookcases to be built.  One or two are lying around.. this small Very Short Introduction series from Foyles..

From the end of the chapter, 'Rationalism and empiricism'

The ideal, of course, would be to find a theory of knowledge that explains both the abstract and the observational (and how they fit together).  Making progress towards that goal seems to require a deeper understanding of the relationship between the first- and third-person points of view on knowledge, a problem that remains a very active research topic in contemporary epistemology, and is the subject matter of Chapter 5.  In modern terminology, the choice between taking a first-person or a third-person approach is the choice between 'internalism' and 'externalism'.  The importance of this choice became very clear in the 1960s, as philosophers struggled to answer a surprising challenge to traditional ways of analysing the concept of knowledge.

The first-person approach example is from Descartes (rationalism):  "What can I know for certain?"

The third-person approach example is from Locke (empiricism):  "What do human beings know?"

Friday, 8 May 2015

Nagai Kafu (1909) - A Strange Tale from East of the River

Slightly different title in
this latest edition (2013)
This is a collection of stories by Nagai Kafu (永井 荷風), the pen-name of Nagai Sokichi (永井 壮吉 - 1879-1959).

In 1905 he was working in New York City for a Japanese bank... and in 1906 he travelled to Paris and London..  Nagai was known for his Chinese poetry.  1905 was the year that my great grandfather was travelling across the USA, then to Japan, China, India... in the opposite direction... and back to London in 1906.  They were travelling in opposite directions and probably never met.

The stories from this book were first published elsewhere - the first is from a magazine, Shinshousetsu (新小説) - and later, the stories were compiled into this book, 'A Strange Tale from East of the River' (or 'Something Strange Across the River' (濹東綺譚, Bokutō Kidan, 1937).

From 'The River Sumida' (すみだ川, Sumidagawa):
Taking the lamp in his hand, he went upstairs to Chokichi's room. 
There were several books on the desk, and with them a book box of cedar.  Ragetsu took out his spectacle case and looked curiously over the textbooks, bound in the Occidental manner.  Something dropped to the floor.  It was a picture of O-ito, in the festive spring dress of a geisha.  Ragetsu put it carefully back into the book from which it had fallen, and went on with his inspection.  This time he came upon a letter.  It seemed to be unfinished, the last sentence being interrupted where the paper had been torn off.  There was enough all the same to make clear what the finished letter would have contained.  Chokichi and O-ito had said good-bye, and day by day, as their worlds moved further and further apart, their hearts must also grow apart.  They had been friends as children, but they would one day be strangers.  Chokichi told in great detail how it grieved him, the knowledge that even if they were to meet from time to time they would no longer share the same feelings.  He had therefore decided to be either an actor or a musician, but these wishes, too, had been denied him, and now, helplessly envying the good fortune of Kichi the barber's son, he passed useless, aimless hours.  He did not have the courage to kill himself.  His one hope was to fall ill and die.
Notes... The poet, Matsuo Basho, lived near Sumida River.. His pen-name, bashou (芭蕉) means banana plant, which grew on the banks of the river.

And Curlew River - composed by Benjamin Britten - was based on a Noh play called 'Sumida River', which Britten saw in Japan during his visit in 1956.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Soseki Natsume (1908) - The Miner

(Available from Sep. 2015)

[夏目漱石の 『鉱夫』]

So this was me back then... reading Soseki... and just as he lived in London when he was young.. I was living far away from home in Japan, picking up colloquial words in Japanese that I'd never need ever again, yet each with their own unique, yet irrelevant, peculiarity (which is probably an oxymoron...)  It also captures my taste for p'taters... and I'll often find myself on the edge of town with a packet of chips.. ready to explore out further...

Amazon writes: "The Miner is the most daringly experimental and least well-known novel of the great Meiji writer Natsume Soseki. An absurdist tale about the indeterminate nature of human personality, written in 1908, it was in many ways a precursor to the work of Joyce and Beckett."

(There's also a lot of Joyce and Beckett that are excellent precursors to 'Joyce' and 'Beckett'...)

I saw why the stream made so much noise: it was full of big rocks.  They were irregularly shaped and, lying down or thrusting upward, they seemed to be there for the express purpose of blocking the flow.  The water was crashing against them, and it was running at an incline.  It came dancing down as if it were being pursued, spreading out the force of its fall from the mountain in easy payments.  So while it might be called a stream, in fact it was more like a broad waterfall paid out in monthly installments. Thus, for a stream with so little water, it was surprisingly turbulent.  The water came rushing down with the reckless abandon of a pushy Tokyoite and flowed past, spouting white foam and twisting and turning like blue, sticky strands of candy.  It was awfully noisy.  Meanwhile, the sun was going down bit by bit.  I looked up but couldn't find anyplace it was shining.  There was just a soft glow over where it had sunk down, and the mountains shouldering that portion of the sky stood out greenish-black.  The time of year was May, but it was cold.  The sound of the water alone made it seem like anything but summer.  And the color of that mountain, with the setting sun on its back and its face in shadow - what could you possibly call that colour?  You could get away with purple or black or green if you simply wanted to give it a name, but how do you set down the way that colour felt?  The mountain looked as if at any moment it was going to lift up, float over my head, and crunch down on top of me.  That was probably what was making me feel so cold.  Vaguely aware that, in another hour or so, every last thing all around me was going to turn the same eerie colour as that mountain over there, and that Chouzou and Ibaraki and I were going to be wrapped in that single, world-enveloping hue, I must have realized that the colour that everything would be in an hour or so was the colour of that one special place where the sun was going down, and sensed that at any moment the colour of the mountain was going to spread from the one special place to take in everything, and this was what had made me feel as if the mountain was going to lift up and crunch down on top of me - which is the analysis of the situation that I came up with just now, sitting at my desk, I'll have to stop this.  Free time inspires a lot of pointless activity.  I was just cold, that's all - so cold that I began to envy Ibaraki his red blanket.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Werner Heisenberg (1958) - Physics and Philosophy

Heisenberg covers a broad range of topics from Greek philosophy through the development of Western philosophies regarding our understanding of the world around us.

The difficulty of metaphysical realism was felt soon after Descartes and became the starting point for the empiristic philosophy, for sensualism and positivism.

The three philosophers who can be taken as representatives for early empiristic philosophy are Locke, Berkeley and Hume.  Locke holds, contrary to Descartes, that all knowledge is ultimately founded in experience.  This experience may be sensation or perception of the operation of our own mind.  Knowledge, so Locke states, is the perception of the agreement or disagreement of two ideas.  The next step was taken by Berkeley.  If actually all our knowledge is derived from perception, there is no meaning in the statement that the things really exist; because if the perception is given it cannot possibly make any difference whether the things exist or do not exist.  Therefore, to be perceived is identical with existence.  This line of argument then was extended to an extreme skepticism by Hume, who denied induction and causation and thereby arrived at a conclusion which if taken seriously would destroy the basis of all empirical science.

The criticism of metaphysical realism which has been expressed in empiristic philosophy is certainly justified in so far as it is a warning against the naïve use of the term, 'existence'.  The positive statements of this philosophy can be criticized on similar lines.  Our perceptions are not primarily bundles of color or sounds; what we perceive is already perceived as something, the accent here being on the word 'thing', and therefore it is doubtful whether we gain anything by taking the perceptions instead of the things as the ultimate elements of reality.

The underlying difficulty has been clearly recognized by modern positivism.  This line of thought expresses criticism against the naïve use of certain terms like 'thing', 'perception', 'existence' by the general postulate that the question whether a given sentence has any meaning at all should always be thoroughly and critically examined.  This postulate and its underlying attitude are derived from mathematical logic.  The procedure of natural science is pictured as an attachment of symbols to the phenomena.  The symbols can, as in mathematics, be combined according to certain rules, and in this way statements about the phenomena can be represented by combinations of symbols.

However, a combination of symbols that does not comply with the rules is not wrong but conveys no meaning.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Kenneth Kushner (1988) - One Arrow, One Life

Zen, Archery, and Daily Life

Much of our internal dialogue involves thoughts about ourselves.  In mushin one loses this sense of self-awareness and self-reflection.  If one is doing something, for example looking at a sunset, one loses the sense that it is 'I' who is looking at the sunset just as one loses the internal dialogue telling him how beautiful it is.  In mushin, one simply experiences the sunset.

The practice of zazen provides a context which facilitates the student's ability to notice when he is distracted by his internal dialogue.  Zazen is usually practiced in a quiet environment in which distracting external stimuli are kept to a minimum.  Yet, even without distractions from external sources, the student is easily distracted by the chain of associations going on in his mind.  The stillness of the setting makes it easier for him to identify when he becomes attached to delusions.  As the student sits, his mind will eventually dwell on extraneous thoughts.  At some point, however, he will notice that the thoughts are clouding his perception; they will stand out as unnecessary images on a larger screen of awareness.  The recognition that he is dwelling on these thoughts is the cue to adjust his breathing and posture and to focus his attention on counting his breath.  Eventually the student can concentrate fully on each breath, allowing him to treat each respiration as an entity in itself.  In that way, zazen becomes a vehicle to attain mushin.

The process of kyudo can also be seen as a method to attain mushin through the integration of breathing, posture and concentration.  In kyudo, attachment to delusive thoughts is a constant temptation.  Any number of delusive thoughts can distract us from full concentration in kyudo.  Events or problems in our lives - such as our jobs, financial situations, family lives - can all intrude on concentration.  However, the thoughts most difficult to keep from following when one is shooting are those relating to our performance in kyudo itself.  Each arrow should be shot without regard to one's past performance or to one's performance in the future, just as Tanzen was able to keep from being distracted by the vision of the girl.  To do so, one must adjust one's breathing and posture in order to regain one's concentration.
issha zetsumei = 一射絶命 = "one shot - end of life" - to put everything one has into an action
mushin = 無心 = no mind;
zazen = 座禅 = sitting meditation
kyudo = 弓道 = way of the bow / Japanese archery

'One shot - end of life' reminds me of Hagakure (as quoted in the film, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)):
There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment. A man’s whole life is a succession of moment after moment. If one fully understands the present moment, there will be nothing else to do, and nothing else to pursue. Live being true to the single purpose of the present moment. 
Everyone lets the present moment slip by, then looks for it as though he thought it were somewhere else. No one seems to have noticed this fact. But grasping this firmly, one must pile experience upon experience. And once one has come to this understanding he will be a different person from that point on, though he may not always bear it in mind. 

Erwin Schrödinger (1944) - What is Life?

The Timoféëff report contains a practical hint which I cannot refrain from mentioning here, though it has, of course, no bearing on our present investigation.  There are plenty of occasions in modern life when a human being has to be exposed to X-rays.  The direct dangers involved, as burns, X-ray cancer, sterilization, are well known, and protection by lead screens, lead-loaded aprons, etc., is provided, especially for nurses and doctors who have to handle the rays regularly.  The point is, that even when these imminent dangers to the indirect danger of small detrimental mutations being produced in germ cells - mutations of the kind envisaged when we spoke of the unfavourable results of close-breeding.  To put it drastically, though perhaps a little naïvely, the injuriousness of a marriage between first cousins might very well be increased by the fact that their grandmother had served for a long period as an X-ray nurse.  It is not a point that need worry any individual personally.  But any possibility of gradually infecting the human race with unwanted latent mutations ought to be a matter of concern to the community.
This is quite a statement from Schrödinger regarding X-rays.  I wonder what X-ray machines at airports are adding to the human gene pool...  All those unnecessary X-rays gradually infecting our germ-line cells with unwanted latent mutations.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Jean-Paul Sartre (1938) - Nausea

Thursday, 11.30

I have spent two hours working in the reading room.  I have come down into the cour des Hypothéques to smoke a pipe.  A square paved with pink bricks.  The people of Bouville are proud of it because it dates from the eighteenth century.  At the entrance to the rue Chamade and the rue Suspédard, some old chains bar the way to vehicles.  These ladies in black, taking their dogs for a walk, glide beneath the arcade, hugging the walls.  They rarely come right out into the daylight but they cast furtive, satisfied, girlish glances at the statue of Gustave Impétraz.  They can't know the name of that bronze giant, but they can see from his frock coat and top hat that he was somebody in high society.  He holds his hat in his left hand and rests his right hand on a pile of folio volumes : it is rather as if their grandfather were there on that pedestal, cast in bronze.  They don't need to look at him for long to understand that he thought as they do, exactly as they do, on all subjects.  At the service of their narrow, firm little ideas he has placed his authority and the immense erudition drawn from the folio volumes crushed under his heavy hand.  The ladies in black feel relieved, they can attend peacefully to their household tasks, take their dogs out : they no longer have the responsibility of defending the sacred ideas, the worthy concepts which they derive from their fathers; a man of bronze has made himself their guardian.
This passage makes me wonder about my great great aunt, Pepita Texidor.  There is a statue of her in the Parc de la Cuitadella in Barcelona.  Many people will wander past her statue, glancing at her face glancing back at them...  how many will know her name or that her statue stands as a memory to her feminist principles 100 yrs ago.  (2014 marked the Centenary of her death.)

This is a video of an exhibition about Pepita:

Friday, 17 April 2015

Cormac McCarthy (1973) - child of god

When Ballard came out onto the porch there was a thin man with a collapsed jaw squatting in the yard waiting for him. 
What say Darfuzzle, said Ballard
What say Lester. 
He sounded like a man with a mouthful of marbles, articulating his goatbone underjaw laboriously, the original one having been shot away. 
Ballard squatted on his heels in the yard opposite the visitor.  They looked like constipated gargoyles. 
Say you found that old gal up on the turnaround?
Ballard sniffed.  What gal? he said.
Thatn was left up yonder.  Had on a nightgown. 
Ballard pulled at the loose sole of his shoe.  I seen her, he said. 
She's went to the sheriff.
She has? 
The other man turned and spat and looked back toward Ballard.  They done arrested Pless. 
That's your all's lookout.  I didn't have nothin to do with her.
She says you did.
She's a lyin sack of green shit. 
The visitor rose.  I just thought I'd tell ye, he said.  You do what you want.

The Epic of Gilgamesh (~2800 BC)

Gilgamesh said to him, 'Why should not my cheeks be starved and my face drawn?  Despair is in my heart and my face is the face of one who has made a long journey.  It was burned with heat and cold.  Why should I not wander over the pastures?  My friend, my younger brother who seized and killed the Bull of Heaven and overthrew Humbaba in the cedar forest, my friend who was very dear to me and endured dangers beside me, Enkidu, my brother whom I loved, the end of mortality has overtaken him.  I wept for him seven days and nights till the worm fastened on him.  Because of my brother I am afraid of death; because of my brother I stray through the wilderness.  His fate lies heavy upon me.  How can I be silent, how can I rest?  He is dust and I shall die also and be laid in the earth for ever.'  Again Gilgamesh said, speaking to Utnapishtim, 'It is to see Utnapishtim whom we call the Faraway that I have come this journey.  For this I have wandered over the world, I have crossed many difficult ranges, I have crossed the seas, I have wearied myself with travelling; my joints are aching, and I have lost acquaintance with sleep which is sweet.  My clothes were worn out before I came to the house of Siduri.  I have killed the bear and hyena, the lion and panther, the tiger, the stag and the ibex, all sorts of wild game and the small creatures of the pastures.  I ate their flesh and I wore their skins; and that was how I came to the gate of the young woman, the maker of wine, who barred her gate of pitch and bitumen against me.  But from her I had news of the journey; so then I came to Urshanabi the ferryman, and with him I crossed over the waters of death.  Oh, father Utnapishtim, you who have entered the assembly of the gods, I wish to question you concerning the living and the dead, how shall I find the life for which I am searching?'

Utnapishtim said, 'There is no permanence.  Do we build a house to stand for ever, do we seal a contract to hold for all time?  Do brothers divide an inheritance to keep for ever, does the flood-time of rivers endure?  It is only the nymph of the dragonfly who sheds her larva and sees the sun in his glory....

Lao Tzu (~500 BC?) - Tao Te Ching

Book II - Te Ching - XLV:

Great perfection seems chipped,
Yet use will not wear it out;
Great fullness seems empty,
Yet use will not drain it;
Great straightness seems bent;
Great skill seems awkward;
Great eloquence seems tongue-tied.

Restlessness overcomes cold; stillness overcomes heat.

Limpid and still,
One can be a leader in the empire.