May 27, 2015

Wed Review (Paul E. Walker - Early Philosophical Shiism: The Isma'ili Neoplatonism of Abu YA'Qub Al-Sijistani)

This is written in such an obtuse fashion. It's definitely for people already in the know - too many strange terms and name drops (most transliterated from Persian or Arabic, like I said this book doesn't explain much for the uninitiated).

I'm also listening to the History of Philosophy without any gaps podcast. The podcaster covers the Islamic world quite thoroughly. I'd recommend that to people, like me, trying to dip their toes into this strange new ocean of ideas.

Saying all of this, I do realize this is a very esoteric topic on a very obscure philosopher (what the hell was this book doing in my small downtown bookstore?). The wikipedia article has this much to say about Abu: "Abu Yaqub al-Sijistani was an Persian Ismaili missionary and Neo-Platonic philosopher, who died sometime around 971 CE". That's it. The only thing else they have on the man is a warning to not confuse him with some other guy with a similar name.

An online philosophy encyclopedia had a lot of info on the guy. I'm not sure how trustworthy this site is, but it looks pretty good.

al-Sijistānī is a Persian philosopher. Ancient Persia is probably best known for being the guys that attacked Greece a bunch of times (5th bc century) (as depicted in that movie that featured oily men with six-packs). The empire stayed around long enough to also rival Rome and the Byzantines in later centuries (7th). So lots of Greek works were lost to the later Europeans (who didn't read Greek), but the Persians - being clever - had already translated much of the Greek works into Arabic and Persian.

Coming up to the 10th century the Persian empire is doing well, and our al-Sijistānī comes onto the scene. He put forth a few interesting metaphysical claims that harkens back to Plato more so than the more popular Aristotle.

This book is quite scholarly in that it discusses the ideas al-Sijistānī put forth and why they are significant to the Ismaili historic tradition. Saying that his works are mostly about God and mystical cosmology - aspects of philosophy that I find mundane due to the fact that its all baseless conjecture. al-Sijistānī main contribution is to reconcile the philosophy of his time with the neoplatonic doctrines of Plotinus. The author is definitely thorough, and the book is a good treatise, I just ended up having no interest in al-Sijistānī. Perhaps I'll revisit this philosopher in the years to come.

May 20, 2015

Wed Review (Dash Shaw - New School)

This is a really odd comicbook. I'm not really sure what to make of it. The plot is straight-forward enough to begin with. The protagonist is a young, religious boy - and I think his characterization is accurate enough, he's quite strange. The boy's older brother goes to a strange country to teach English to the natives that will begin working at a theme-park tourist destination. The book was interesting to me specifically because I was looking into teaching English in China this summer (a friend of mine is going, but I backed out at the last second because I'm fearful).

The art seems really awful at first, and then the coloring is just broad single-colored paint strokes over the entire panel, or page. I'm not sure if there's some significance to the colors, or why some panels are colored and others are not. It seems random.

It somehow kept me interested enough to come back to it, and over a week's time, about 20 minutes per day, I read the thing. So it wasn't interesting enough for my usual one-sitting reading style, but interesting enough that I actually came back to it (usually if a book doesn't hook me enough to read it in a long sitting I'll just forget about it). I think it had to do with the strange-ness of the whole thing, but the ability of the author to keep it grounded enough that I was legitimately interested for the plot - I wanted to see if something strange would actually happen.

This book is a story about brotherhood and self-identity hidden within a strange form of communication. I'm reminded of the story-telling abilities of my friend who had Asperger's.

May 13, 2015

Wed Review (Quine - On What There Is)

"What is there?" is a simple way to put the ontological (study of being) question. But when two people disagree on the existence of something, we run into an ontological problem, stated by Quine as: "in any ontological dispute the proponent of the negative side suffers the disadvantage of not being able to admit that his opponent disagrees with him". If I say that there is a Pegasus, I can defend that notion by saying, "if there were no Pegasus, why are we able to talk about it?". I may eventaully submit and say that Pegasus is not a flesh and blood creature somewhere in the world, but rather an idea in men's minds." My opponent, however, is not claiming that Pegasus doesn't exist as an idea, but that it doesn't exist in the world as a flesh and blood creature.

The philosopher Wyman (I'm unsure which school he's criticizing here) comes in and fucks up our common notion of what existence means. However, if we lose the regular meaning of the term existence, we can still use the word 'is' to help explain the idea meant by "Pegasus does not exist". The philosopher allows much more things to exist, creating an odd ontology.

Quine makes absurd the notion that Pegasus exists (even though not in flesh and blood) with the mind experiment given here: "Take, for instance, the possible fat man in that doorway; and, again, the possible bald man in that doorway. Are they the same possible man, or two possible men? How do we decide? How many possible men are there in that doorway?" To admit that each 'idea' of the man is a separate existing entity is silly.

For what can method can we use for our ontology? Bertrand Russell had a theory of singular descriptions - it "showed clearly how we might meaningfully use seeming names without supposing that there be the entities allegedly named". The name can be used as a description of the thing named. Names don't need objective reference to be meaningful as we can use a variable to fulfill the role of the objective reference. When say Pegasus has wings, I am in fact saying there is a variable (say x) and that variable has the quality of being called 'Pegasus' and x also has the quality of having wings. The x doesn't need to exist in order for that formulation to be meaningful.

This problem could have been circumvented if we noticed the difference between 'meaning' and 'naming'. This brings us to another famous quote in this essay, so I'll just put it here.

"The phrase ‘Evening Star’ names a certain large physical object of spherical form, which is hurtling through space some scores of millions of miles from here. The phrase ‘Morning Star’ names the same thing, as was probably first established by some observant Babylonian. But the two phrases cannot be regarded as having the same meaning; otherwise that Babylonian could have dispensed with his observations and contented himself with reflecting on the meanings of his words. The meanings, then, being different from one another, must be other than the named object, which is one and the same in both cases."

The meaning of the singular term is different than what its reference (the object that the term denotes. If I work at the Daily Bugle, and I call out the name 'Peter Parker', I mean a much different thing than if I were to say 'Spider-man' because I don't know that they are the same person. Therefor meaning is not found in the named object.

Quine proceeds to criticise the notion of the existence of Plato's Universals. "we can view utterances as significant, and as synonymous or heteronymous with one another, without countenancing a realm of entities called meanings." Therefor we can have the notion of 'red' and say of multiple objects that there a red without admitting the existence of a universal 'red'.

There are a bunch of different schools of thought concerning this stuff. Quine goes through a few of them. The three 20th century schools of though correspond to the three mediaeval points of view.

1) Realism, now logicism, "Realism, as the word is used in connection with the mediaeval controversy over universals, is the Platonic doctrine that universals or abstract entities have being independently of the mind; the mind may discover them but cannot create them."

2) conceptualism, now intuitionism "Conceptualism holds that there are universals but they are mind-made."

3) nominalism, now formalism "echoes intuitionism in deploring the logicist’s unbridled recourse to universals" but wants to not use abstract entities at all.

May 6, 2015

Wed Review (Charles Sanders Peirce - The Fixation of Belief)

This essay tackles the idea that many people are already made up in their beliefs and will struggle to change them for a number of reasons. Logic is something few people care to study because it's something will all already engage in. I thought it was interesting that Peirce notes the history of logic and drawing inferences; it's an art that has improved over the centuries. Every major new work of science, after a few generations, exemplifies the "defective state of the art of reasoning of the time it was written". Reasoning allows us to discover new conclusions from old data. We can be mislead from habit if it doesn't produce true conclusions from true premisses. Our daily way of dealing with things is steeped in bad logic, and this could be for practical reasons - not wanting to disturb our inner peace, not wanting to be ostracized etc. Doubt is "an uneasy and dissatisfied state" - pushing us to inquire, but preventing us from acting. Inquiry must start with a real and living doubt; from propositions that are not under doubt; and ends after doubt ends.

My favourite part in the essay is when Peirce discusses the avoidance of reasoning. "When an ostrich buries its head in the sand as danger approaches, it very likely takes the happiest course. It hides the danger, and then calmly says there is no danger; and, if it feels perfectly sure there is none, why should it raise its head to see? A man may go through life, systematically keeping out of view all that might cause a change in his opinions, and if he only succeeds -- basing his method, as he does, on two fundamental psychological laws -- I do not see what can be said against his doing so. It would be an egotistical impertinence to object that his procedure is irrational, for that only amounts to saying that his method of settling belief is not ours. He does not propose to himself to be rational, and, indeed, will often talk with scorn of man's weak and illusive reason. So let him think as he pleases." However this method may be pleasing to the ostrich-man, it may not be obtainable as "the social impulse is against it".