Friday, October 31, 2014

Notes on Quine, Word and Object, Chapter 2 (Translation and Meaning), second half

Section 12, Synonymy of Terms: Synonymy of stimulus meaning of one-word sentences does not imply synonymy of the underlying terms, because (for example) the term in one case may apply to temporal stages, or undetached parts, or a singular term for a fusion of all exemplars, or a recurring universal - to do so would be to assume that the native is enough like us to have a brief general term for an enduring object and none for these other aspects. Synonymy of sentences (even those of one word) is based on prompted assent, but this is not the case for mere terms. Ostension provides no help without many of the trappings of language that are not yet available in radical translation, such as identity and diversity, and even the notion of 'term' is not clearly mapped in the native language. Nevertheless, occasion sentences and their stimulus meaning can match up, but terms and reference are particular to a conceptual scheme. The situation is no better with respect to intrasubjective stimulus synonymy, thus coextensiveness of terms is no clearer than synonymy or translation itself. Within a language we can add a requirement "All Fs are Gs and vice-versa" that connects the stimulus synonymy of one-word occasion sentences to their underlying terms. We treat this as a stimulus-analytic sentence, which is one that is assented to after any stimulation. That it must be within a language is expected in relation to terms. We can also socialize this as with synonymy of sentences, i.e., if two terms are stimulus-synonymous for most individuals, then they are socially stimulus-synonymous. Socially stimulus-synonymous terms are typically learned descriptively, i.e., through purely verbal learning, while those that are inconsistently synonymous across subjects are typically learned associatively, through direct experience. Some terms of theoretical science are of a third sort whereby they are connected through a more complex network of verbal connections, and synonymy intuitions do not typically arise.

Section 13, Translating Logical Connectives: Logical connectives are susceptible to radical translation by use of short occasion or standing sentences along with semantic criteria. For example, the idiom for negation will turn affirmation into dissent and vice-versa. Once a native construction fulfills the semantic criteria, we can consider it understood. This approach does not work if the natives have a pre-logical mentality, but we must assume that logical laws are preserved in translation. Dropping a logical law unhinges truth values in many sentences. Sentences that appear surprisingly false probably turn on hidden linguistic differences. We cannot do the same for categoricals, and the reason is fundamental. Categoricals depend on the objects for their truth, and objects cannot be uniquely determined by stimulus meanings. So, only the truth-functional part of logic can be translated via behavioral criteria. Mereological relations are more susceptible to radical semantic criteria, but the correspondence there is still poor.

Section 14, Synonymous and Analytic Sentences: "Synonymous" here carries the full generality of "same in meaning." The broad type of synonymy is when two sentences receive concomitant assent and dissent, and strictly due to word usage. Carnap's narrower "intensional isomorphism" can be reduced to this broader approach. This notion of synonymy works fairly well for occasion sentences, but not so for standing sentences, despite the fact that the latter remain important in theories. We can lengthen the modulus of stimulation, which improves stimulus meanings and stimulus synonymy only at the expense of the scrutability of the synonyms. The cause of this issue is the interconnection of sentences - there are many ways to accommodate experiences in the network of connections. Grice and Strawson's attempt to solve this using experiences that confirm and disconfirm proposed synonymous sentences fails to improve upon stimulus synonymy. This still-unclear notion of intrasubjective sentence synonymy is equivalent to that of an analytic sentence, which are sentences that we would affirm "come what may." In the end, socialized stimulus synonymy and stimulus analyticity are a behavioristic ersatz. In the face of denials of analytic sentences we tend to assume that there is a problem in understanding the language, and if a native does not agree on such things we tend to think that he cannot be depended on in general. This should not be used to justify an analytic / synthetic dichotomy.

Section 15, Analytical Hypotheses: Results so far: observation sentences and truth functions can be translated; stimulus-analytic sentences can be recognized; native occasion sentences cannot be translated. To get past this, the linguist creates analytical hypotheses where he segments utterances into short recurrent parts and maps them to English words and phrases. The translator must apply parsimony in trading complex analytical hypotheses for consistency of stimulus analyticity. Banal messages are the breath of life in translation. The analytical hypotheses do not imply strict equivalence of words. They are also used to explain syntax. This method accelerates translation by leveraging the destination language. We can re-analyze all this by adding the assumption that the translator becomes bilingual. The finished translation manual is an infinite semantic correlation of sentences, supported primarily only by analytical hypotheses. In part because of the ambiguity of stimulus meanings of terms, native sentences may be expected to be translated in a variety of incompatible ways. Stimuli vastly under-determine the analytical hypotheses. Thus rival systems of analytical hypotheses can fit the overall dispositions to speech behavior yet specify mutually incompatible translation manuals.

Section 16, On Failure to Perceive the Indeterminacy: There are at least seven reasons why one would fail to appreciate the indeterminacy. (1) Analytical hypotheses are confirmed in the field. (2) Confusion with the superficial claim that uniqueness of translation is not expected. (3) Confusion with the platitude that uniqueness of translation is absurd. (4) A feeling that a true bilingual is in a position to make a uniquely correct correlation. (5) Linguists adhere to implicit rules that constrain their analytic hypotheses. (6) A few early analytical hypotheses go far in translation. (7) In framing analytical hypotheses the linguist is subject to practical constraints. There is a parallel between truth of sentences in a theory and interlinguistic synonymy in that they are only meaningful in the context of a theory or set of analytical hypotheses. We should avoid thinking that there is a linguistically neutral meaning of a theoretical sentence; per Wittgenstein, "Understanding a sentence means understanding a language." The main lesson is the empirical slack in our beliefs: radical translation of sentences is underdetermined by dispositions to speech behavior, and our theories and beliefs are underdetermined by the possible sensory evidence.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Taking a Break from Virtue

In Section Two of Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche takes to psychology to primarily explain, rather than justify, morality across a breathtaking variety of aspects and situations. Though there is some attitudinal consistency and there are a few mini-themes in this treatment, there is little in the way of broader themes. His approach is mostly cynical, consistent with his praise of Le Rouchefoucald early in the section. Each aphorism is mostly independent, though occasionally there is a sequence of related items.

It is therefore challenging to discuss this section as a whole, aside from the psychologistic method, so I have simply selected one very short aphorism to analyze. Aphorism 83 in our primary translation (Faber, 1996) is:

"When virtue has slept, it will arise refreshed."

The Zimmern translation (1914) states it as:

"When virtue has slept, it will arise again all the fresher."

And the Harvey translation (1908) has:

"If virtue goes to sleep, it will be more vigorous when it awakes."

The first question that arises with respect to this line is whether the intent is somewhat literal, indicating that a virtuous person will be even moreso after sleep. This interpretation cannot be simply rejected out of hand, even though the text exudes metaphor, since earlier, in aphorisms 12 and 13, sleeping and dreaming are addressed in some detail. In these, there is an emphasis on how the dream brings us back to an earlier phase of mankind, our cruder and more violent past. Thus it is possible that Nietzsche is here saying that when one sleeps and dreams and encounters those earlier stages of morality, one responds to that experience by a renewed enthusiasm for modern morality.

The more obvious metaphorical interpretation is that of taking a break from virtue, of releasing oneself from quotidian strictures and becoming more relaxed, perhaps more driven by the id than the superego, perhaps to sin, for a time. Subsequently we are more virtuous even than prior to our divagation. There are two primary reasons why this might be the case: first, because we feel guilty for our transgressions; second, because the repose simply enabled us to refresh those faculties that control our behavior and enable us to consistently exhibit virtue.

There is no suggestion in any of the translations as to whether Nietzsche has a preference for the cause of this effect - it appears to be merely an observation. This is slightly odd in the context of Section 2 since it is generally about the underlying psychology and motivations of our moral and immoral behavior. However, there do not seem to be other aphorisms in the section to which this one is attached, and that might further clarify the intent. He does elsewhere discuss how moral behavior progressively becomes custom or habit through repetition, and how virtues are usually judged relative to longstanding traditions. Though related, this gives us no insight into the present exegesis.

Probably less promising is to view the line as a statement about virtue in humanity in general. Through this lens it might be saying that virtuous behavior among mankind will need to pause - perhaps during a period of widespread nihilism - before it can achieve a successful revaluation of values. While this fits what we know of Nietzsche's views, his elaboration of the historical progress of morals, particularly his predictions for the future, seem relatively less mature in this work than in Beyond Good and Evil and Geneaology of Morals. More directly, since this section is mostly about moral psychology and less about historical progressions, an individual-related interpretation is probably better.

I favor the metaphorical, individual interpretation. The cultural interpretation seems farfetched for this work, and the literal interpretation would more likely have been stated differently, possibly with a mention of dreams. Finally, as a maxim, the notion that we sometimes need a break from virtue resonates well.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Notes on Nietzsche's Human, All Too Human Section 2: On the History of Moral Feelings

35. The art of psychological observation is a rich source of entertainment and relief, but it is not widely practiced today. The polished maxim is the unappreciated pinnacle of this art.

36. Conversely, perhaps a blind faith in the goodness of human nature, rather than psychological perspicacity, will make man happier and less distrustful.

37. Often the errors of great philosophers result from false explanations of human actions and feelings. The solution is to inquire as to the origins and history of those feelings, but due to the reputation of such inquiries as gossip, the approach has been viewed with suspicion.

38. Science, which is the imitation of nature in concepts, cannot do without psychological observation. Earnest individuals sometimes need frivolity, just as unreliable people sometimes need heavy burdens for their health.

39. To avoid the charge of inevitability, there is a progression of moral judgments from outcomes, to actions, to motives, to nature, and finally the realization that responsibility and freedom of will are an error. According to Schopenhauer, man feels remorse or pride because he thinks he is free, not because he is. To judge is to be unjust, even when judging oneself.

40. "Without the errors inherent in the postulates of morality, man would have remained an animal."

41. "The brevity of human life misleads us to many an erroneous assertion about the qualities of man." For example, "it is not true that one's character is unchangeable."

42. The hierarchy of morality is not determined from the point of view of morality, and it varies over time. But actions are judged by the standards of the present.

43. We must think of cruel men as remnants from earlier cultural stages: they show us what we all were, and frighten us. But they are not responsible for being this way.

44. For the powerful man, gratitude is a milder form of revenge.

45. Historically, in the soul of the ruling clans, men who have the power to requite are "good," and those who are not powerful in this way are "bad." The enemy is not evil because he can requite. In the souls of the oppressed, every other man is evil; under the latter notion of good and evil, community can barely be established and cannot last.

46. When a friend is guilty of ignominious action, we feel it more painfully than he does.

47. Hypochondria arising from compassion is a kind of pity akin to disease.

48. Kindness and love are such precious remedies that one would hope they would be used economically, but this is impossible.

49. Good nature, friendliness, and courtesy have made much greater contriburtions to culture than pity, charity, and self-sacrifice. There is much more happiness apparent in the world if we do not forget the plentiful moments of ease in every day that even occur among the oppressed.

50. One ought to express pity but should guard against actually having it. Thirst for pity is thirst for self-enjoyment at the expense of fellow men. Who will be honest enough to admit the pleasure in inflicting pain?

51. "If someone wants to seem to be something, stubbornly and for a long time, he eventually finds it hard to be anything else. The profession of almost every man, even the artist, begins with hypocrisy, as he imitates from the outside, copies what is effective." Holding a friendly countenance eventually makes one actually benevolent.

52. In all great deceivers, belief in themselves overcomes them, and this is what is so convincing to others.

53. Sensitive men feel that moral actions and intellectual insights are necessarily connected, but it is not so.

54. Men normally tell the truth because it is advantageous and easier than the imagination and memory required of lies, but if one grew up in complicated domestic circumstances, lying comes more naturally.

55. The strength of the Catholic Church resides in the consistency of those priests who live a self-imposed harsh existence.

56. One gains wisdom by thinking for a while that men are basically evil, but this and its opposite are both wrong, and the entire realm of moral ideas is in a continual state of flux. The man who seeks peace makes it his only goal to understand as well as he can; this will soften his disposition.

57. What we usually consider to be "selfless" states and actions are not; instead they are loving one aspect of oneself more than others.

58. "One can promise actions, but not feelings, for the latter are involuntary." We can honestly claim everlasting love because we promise the semblance of love.

59. "One must have a good memory to be able to keep the promises one has given. One must have strong powers of imagination to be able to have pity. So closely is morality bound to the quality of the intellect."

60. If a morality assesses only intentions, then thoughts of revenge are treated equally whether or not one executes them. Usually the execution is deemed worse; both evaluations are short-sighted. Failing to act on vengeful desires creates a chronic suffering.

61. "Passion will not wait. The tragedy in the lives of great men often lies not in their conflict with the times and the baseness of their fellow men, but rather in their inability to postpone their work for a year or two. They cannot wait."

62. Crude men tend to assess the degree of insult as high as possible, so they can revel in the aroused feelings of hatred.

63. The great majority of men find it necessary to belittle the image they form of everyone else, in order to maintain their self-respect and effectiveness in their actions.

64. A cold glance that incites fear by making physical savageness visible is a cultural remnant; women have preserved this.

65. Speaking honestly of one's motives, or exposing things that people do not want to see about themselves, will bring about ostracism and other punishment.

66. "Our crime against criminals is that we treat them like scoundrels."

67. "Every virtue has its privileges, one being to deliver its own little bundle of wood to the funeral pyre of a condemned man."

68. Motives and intentions are seldom clear, and the success of a deed often causes incorrect attribution of motives, even in oneself. This can sometimes even displace more substantial arguments about truth.

69. Why do we overestimate love to the disadvantage of justice? Love is foolish, and dispenses her gifts to everyone - she is as nonpartisan as rain.

70. Why do executions offend us more than murders? Is it the realization that a man is being used as a means to deter others?

71. Hope is the most evil of evils, because it prolongs man's torment.

72. No one knows how far circumstances or passions can drive him.

73. A cowardly man who cares about the opinions of others is exploited by his comrades, who make him into a hero and a martyr even while lacking respect for him.

74. "One will seldom go wrong to attribute extreme actions to vanity, moderate ones to habit, and petty ones to fear."

75. A man who sought pleasure in youth imagines virtue associated with displeasure; one who was plagued by his pasions and vices longs for peace in virtue. Thus two virtuous people may not understand each other at all.

76. The ascetic makes a necessity/misery of virtue.

77. We increase the perceived value of that for which sacrifices are made.

78. One who lacks ambition must have a moral sense to succeed, but ambitious people can make do without it.

79. "How poor the human spirit would be without vanity!"

80. Why is it more praiseworthy for a man grown old, who feels his powers decrease, to await his slow exhaustion and disintegration, rather than to put a term to his life with complete consciousness?

81. There is a difference and gap between the injustice experienced by a perpetrator and felt by a victim. The mighty are accustomed to riches and influence, while every morsel of either is of great consequence to the rabble.

82. Vanity is the skin of the soul, covering and making its stirrings and passions bearable.

83. "When virtue has slept, it will arise refreshed."

84. "Men are not ashamed to think something dirty, but they are ashamed when they imagine that others might believe them capable of these dirty thoughts."

85. "Most men are much too concerned with themselves to be malicious."

86. "We praise or find fault, depending on which of the two provides more opportunity for our powers of judgment to shine."

87. "He who humbleth himself wants to be exalted." (c.f. Luke 18:14)

88. It can be just to kill a man, but never to stop a man from killing himself.

89. A vain man seeks joy through the good opinion of others, even if obtained falsely. He trusts the judgment of others more than his own, so he misleads others into overvaluing him and then accepts that assessment.

90. A man who claims another is a fool, and is proved wrong, becomes annoyed.

91. "How much pleasure we get from morality!" It would be a great loss if irresponsibility held sway.

92. Justice is requital and exchange on the assumption of approximately equal positions of strength; revenge and gratitude fall under this. But men have forgotten the original purpose of just, fair actions and it has gradually come to appear that a just action is a selfless one.

93. A weaker party, such as a slave under a master, has rights to the extent it can destroy itself and thus create a loss to the stronger. Each has as much right as its power is worth.

94. The first phase of morality is acting toward enduring rather than momentary comfort. The second is acting according to a priniciple of honor and seeking respect. The third and final is acting according to one's own standards of what is honorable or profitable.

95. "We wish to work for our fellow men, but only insofar as we find our own highest advantage in this work."

96. The basic opposition in morality is not between egoism and altruism, but rather between adherence to tradition and release from it.

97. "Custom is the union of the pleasant and the useful... as soon as man can exercise force, he exercises it to introduce and enforce his mores, for to him they represent proven wisdom." But we make the error in thinking that this is the only way to achieve such comfort. Yet even harsh customs become more pleasant and mild over time.

98. Shared joy and pleasure taken together makes man better: one feels good oneself and can see the other man feel good in the same way. Shared pleasure and sorrow both awaken the fantasy of empathy, the feeling of being alike.

99. All "evil" actions are motivated by preservation, to gain pleasure and avoid unpleasure, outraging us because we erroneously think the man who harms us has free will. In a society, morality starts as a force, then becomes custom, then free obedience and almost instinct, and once habitual becomes pleasurable and thus is designated a virtue.

100. Shame exists wherever there is a mysterium. Sexual relationships are a mystery of the mature. Kingship is a mystery to the humble. The whole world of inner states is a mysterium to non-philosophers.

101. We should not necessarily judge earlier periods harshly; the instinct for justice was not so highly developed then. That others suffer must be learned, and is never learned completely.

102. The distinction between a thunderstorm and an injurious man is in error, because there is no free will in either case. All morality allows infliction of harm if it is in self-defense, but since all men seek pleasure and avoid unpleasure, then all acts, even those that harm others, are self-preservation.

103. The immorality in malice is not in gaining pleasure at the expense of others, but in the possibility of our unpleasure from requital. Pity does not aim at the pleasure of others any more than malice aims at the pain of others. Pity is rightly placed low in the hierarchy of moral feelings.

104. If self-defense is moral, then most acts of egoism are moral. We do not really know how painful our action is to others - all we know is whether or not it produces pleasure in us, and that is the criterion on which we evaluate it.

105. "Neither punishment nor reward are due to anyone as his; they are given to him because it is useful" in discouraging or encouraging others from acting in the same way.

106. All human actions are necessary, though the acting man is caught in his illusion of volition. This assumption that free will exists is also part of the calculable mechanism.

107. "In hindsight, all our behavior and judgments will appear as inadequate and rash as the behavior and judgments of backward savage tribes now seem to us inadequate and rash." Those who feel sorrow from this will attempt to transform mankind from moral into wise.

Lightness and Important Decisions

We have been seeking to buy a new home, and the associated challenges and inevitable anxiety feel weighty. It is a relatively important decision, and this prompted me to consider the role of lightness in such situations. For an introduction to the notion of lightness, see Lightness and Jazz; but for convenience I can remind you of the two overlapping components: ability to choose and absence of a sense of burden.

When we are involved In major decisions, maintaining a sense of lightness requires evaluation and management of consequences, commitment, and expectations.

If there are no consequences to a choice, then it neither limits our future options nor creates any reason to trouble our minds. In contrast, a genuine life-or-death decision justifiably consumes our focus and is difficult to treat lightly. Most situations fall somewhere between these extremes, and evaluating exactly where, with a clear head, is paramount.

We can start by considering worst-case scenarios. Note the plural, since usually in any decision there is the potential for more than one undesirable consequence. Each of these will have a different effect on future happiness as well as on the cost or availability of future options. Of course, there is always surrounding us a variety of unpleasant possible scenarios, including slow and painful death. The question relating to a decision, though, is not whether these are possible outcomes of the decision, but rather whether the decision increases (or reduces) the likelihood of such outcomes.

Upon examination, we will often see that the worst-case scenarios that are actually causally related to the decision are not so severe as they first appeared. If appropriate precautions are taken in, for example, buying a house, then the worst case is that one's objectives were not achieved in the move, and the effort of purchase and moving was wasted.

Note the mention of precautions. Though we might imagine lightness as completely carefree, a generally prudent approach can assist with maintaining lightness long-term in both its manifestations. If one does not have the home inspected by a professional, for example, all manner of problems can become apparent later, creating financial and other burdens. The ideas explored in my earlier post Disproportionate Consequences are relevant to reducing the risk or severity of worst-case scenarios.

We also need to assess the extent to which a decision commits us irrevocably to a path; or viewed in the obverse, to identify our bailout options. Clearly, this most affects the "freedom to choose" element of lightness. In the home purchase example, if things do not work out as planned, we do not have to live there forever. Unless we are financially overextended (prudence again) we do not have to live there indefinitely.

The implications of managing the level of commitment of a decision are more complex. Of course, we should avoid closing doors when it is not essential to the value of a path. ln the context of lightness, it would seem that any sort of commitment reduces our freedom to choose. This is perhaps the most difficult tradeoff, because most values other than lightness itself require some level of commitment to be realized. In love, for example, the depth of a relationship is strongly related to the commitment (this is one of the themes explored in The Unbearable Lightness of Being). My earlier post Goal, Direction, or Journey? explores a way to reduce the weight of one's intentions while still enabling achievement. But this does not always work.

Finally, awareness and management of our own expectations will strongly affect the other element of lightness, our sense of burden. Despite our efforts (particularly for the engineers among us), optimal outcomes are rare, and both expecting and seeking them frequently generates disappointment. A general acceptance of suboptimal outcomes helps with this - not just recognizing it in particular decisions but as a part of life. Aiming for optimality gives any decision much greater weight: we feel that the consequences of an error are greater than they are.

Realistic and preferably rapid acknowledgement of negative conditions is also important to maintaining lightness. Though it may dampen one's mood in the moment, the habit of recognizing circumstances for what they are reduces the impact of disappointment later. I sometimes refer to this as the "blackjack 15" condition. When you are dealt fifteen in blackjack, you are probably going to lose the hand. You can still make the best decisions available to you, but in all likelihood you have lost. By recognizing this immediately, you reduce the weight of the decision. Crucially, though, the habit to gain here is not to always expect failure and attain lightness through victimhood; it is simply to be aware of whether particular decisions are likely to make a difference.

In essence, managing expectations toward lightness means moderating enthusiasm prior to realization of values, and recognizing likely losses early.

In important decisions, those who are inclined toward assiduity can use these techniques to manage lightness in the moment, for they tend to be overly concerned with the future; while those who are naturally carefree would do well to use them to maintain their lightness longer term.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Doxastic Promiscuity

I started writing "Doxastic Promiscuity Considered Harmful" early in the year, and after a lengthy hiatus finally finished it in presentable form. Those with a computer science education may get a laugh out of the title. The essay serves two purposes for me, first to put a stake in the ground on a number of issues, and second simply for writing practice. It is dense and a bit pretentious, but you may also find it fun and interesting. It is too long to simply incorporate here as a blog post, but I've also decided not to try to publish it, as I think it probably covers too much ground too thinly.

In philosophy, the word "doxastic" refers to beliefs, and the idea of this essay is to discuss our human inclination to believe far too easily and frequently, especially in matters of import. This may be apparent to you when reading your Twitter or Facebook feed, to see the wealth of strong opinions in the absence of much real knowledge.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Ontological Hunger

We humans seem to have an insatiable desire to cut up the world into parts and declare that the world is constituted from those parts. In science, Democritus is the best-known early proponent of this project; his intellectual descendants, the reductionists, have been ascendant since at least the Enlightenment. But this inclination is not limited to philosophers and scientists - anyone with a normal human perceptual system tends to experience the world as consisting of disparate objects, and it is natural to attribute metaphysical implications to that experience.

Parmenides, Nietzsche, Eastern religions, and others have argued in opposition that the experience of independent objects is an illusion, and all of existence is a unity. This minority view seems always associated with techniques for achieving a psychological experience of the unity (including oneself), as it is not at all self-evident and may even contradict common sense. Part of the difficulty seems to be that along with unity is assumed homogeneity, which simply cannot be (if all that is, is identical, how could even experience have any variation?). It is much easier to imagine a heterogeneous unity, a connected reality that nevertheless maintains gradients of various sorts.

Is there any possible way to distinguish between a heterogeneous unity and a reductionist ontology? Synchronically, probably not: the most accurate available description of reality can always be interpreted in either mode. Diachronically, though, we have (so far) always found that a particular ontological interpretation must eventually be abandoned, whereas its conceptual mapping under a heterogeneous unity can be naturally subsumed under a new paradigmatic order. This proves nothing metaphysical but does suggest a way to avoid disappointment and dogma.

Under a regime of heterogeneous unity, detectable gradients suggest boundaries and conceptual ontologies that we as observers are free to adopt. Because it is natural to do so, we may even perform what I call opportunistic reification - thinking of the abstractions as inherent to reality. Crucially, though, in such a scenario one would remain aware of this as a mere cognitive tool rather than a metaphysical imputation.

The approach also can be applied to the self. We can consider the body - and the mind - with which we are familiar to be continuous with the heterogenous unity. But it is not an arbitrary and vacuous distinction to also refer to the self: there are gradients, and processes, that the abstraction "I" reasonably and naturally isolates. Nevertheless, on this view, reference to the self is conscious and instrumental reification and not metaphysical identification.

It bears repeating that this is only a perspective, not a metaphysical claim.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Lightness and Jazz

I have some interest in continental philosophy, because it challenges my left-brained Apollonian instincts and makes me think in different ways about how to live life. The past week or so I have been thinking about the notion of "lightness," which appears to have been a popular topic in the 1980s but not frequently examined since (there is a similar concept in eastern philosophy - I have not yet explored this or how they might connect). Most people have heard of or seen the movie "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" (I refer to it as "the unbearable length of this movie" - four hours), which is very loosely based on the most frequently cited novel that explores lightness. There, the idea is that determinism, or worse, Nietzsche's eternal return, puts a great weight, a heaviness, on all our actions because they are definitive or even repeated forever. This is in contrast to free will, or "freedom" in the terminology of existentialism, which has a certain "lightness" in that there is no deep meaning or permanence to our actions. However, it has the opposite problem, which is that it makes all our actions and choices completely meaningless, hence "unbearable."

Continental philosophy seems to use words as much to trigger reactions and emotions as to relate concepts, so I have my own loose thinking about lightness. I see it as having two overlapping aspects: a strong sense of one's ability to choose freely and go one's own way (i.e, one is not excessively weighed down by prior commitments and expectations); and a view of life that is not overly serious, that takes things as they come, that eschews drama. Of course, there is necessarily weight to one's choices - some of them affect the rest of one's life, and we have to live with those consequences. Thus a radical lightness is contradictory in both aspects - if it leads to carelessness, we create drama; if we are obsessively committed to it, we have constrained our freedom to choose.

Lightness is a way to counteract the inevitable heaviness that daily life imposes. A smile, a change of scenery, a different perspective, a letting go of attachments. Life does not need to be incessantly heavy, or filled with anxiety or dread. Just live it.

And that brings me to Jazz. An epiphany emerged today that Jazz is an aesthetic embodiment of lightness, in both of the aspects mentioned above. First, it is a generally lighthearted, happy genre - even the occasional deep or painful topic is smoothed over with a lilting saxophone or clarinet - and mostly it just sounds like a good mood. Second, the technique of improvisation is central to Jazz. Of course, musicians sometimes improvise in the solo in classical and rock & roll, but this is generally viewed as an aside, and in any case it is relatively constrained. Improvisation in Jazz is precisely a lightness, a disclosure of immediate and intuitive choices that are what the musician knows and feels at that moment, and this comes through to the listener.