Tag Archives: philosophy

Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile: The Making of a Political Philosopher [Amazon, Abebooks, Publisher, Local Library] by Eugene Sheppard, part of The Tauber Institute Series for the Study of European Jewry.

Sheppard Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile

I have only ever read one text by Leo Strauss (Persecution and the Art of Writing) and this is the first secondary work focused on him that I have read. Eugene Sheppard’s Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile: The Making of a Political Philosopher distinctly shows traces of its origin as a doctoral dissertation in Jewish intellectual history. The meat of the book is, for all that, very interesting. Sheppard examines Strauss’s biography and intellectual development only prior to his attainment of celebrity at the University of Chicago. He traces the philosopher’s origins among conservative rural Jews in Germany, his iconoclastic relationship to Weimar politics, the relationships that he formed with conservative scholars in Germany, and his difficult orientation to the academic scene in the US. The anecdotes and quotes from Strauss’s long friendship with Gershom Scholem were particularly notable, from my perspective.

Persecution and the Art of Writing is the climax and turning point of this narrative, where Strauss anchors his work in relationship to “the ramifications of multilevel writing as the philosophical response of one resigned to live in an imperfect society yet not fully willing to surrender a noble vision of the perfect regime” (80). Not only does Strauss write about the use of this technique in the Middle Ages and antiquity, along with its extinction in early modernity, he also writes using the technique, and dissimulating his atheist, anti-theological convictions while supporting the worldly authority of religious doctrines. 

Like Sheppard, I find myself in disagreement with what I understand of Strauss’s mature politics. But I appreciate the extent to which Strauss seized on the dilemmas of liberal modernity, and I observe an essential congruity between the Jewish galut (condition of exile) and the Gnostic sense of alienation, in that both fuel the dynamics of esoteric expression. This book is fascinating and has only further encouraged me to read more Strauss.

The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Anne Conway, eds Taylor Corse, Allison P Coudert, part of the Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy series.

Conway Coudert Corse The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy

The historical existence of Anne Conway was a thrilling surprise to me. Here was a 17th-century Englishwoman who had been trained in Cartesian philosophy, Lurianic kabbalah, and Helmontian chymistry. She was an acknowledged influence on Leibniz, and she had an active rapport with the first generation of Quakers. All this excitement and more is available in this volume’s introduction by Allison P. Coudert. 

The primary text being introduced is decidedly less engaging. It is a manageable treatise in nine sections, trained primarily on theoretical natural philosophy, in primary opposition to Descartes, but also at the end taking up against Spinoza and Hobbes. Conway is careful to keep her positions defensibly Christian, and even includes the occasional “proof” from scripture. She also relies on allegedly empirical facts about spontaneous generation of animals from rotting matter (data furnished by von Helmont, evidently). 

On the plus side, her notable positions include: 
a) Staunch opposition to any dualistic divide between matter and spirit. She insists that these are the poles of a graduated continuum.
b) Reincarnation, including the passage of individuals between the forms of humanity and different animal species.
c) Understanding of spiritual and material organisms as manifold, and infinitely divisible into component organisms, in an open hierarchical fashion.

It’s not too onerous a read, but the actual Conway text is somewhat ponderous. Still, it complements my earlier studies in English supernatural alchemy. I also expect it to be helpful background in my ongoing Blake readings this year, since as Coudert notes, the treatise is a sterling example of the sort of esoterically-grounded English Renaissance thought that provided a springboard for both the Enlightenment and reactions against it.

The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: A History, a Philosophy, a Warning [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Justin E H Smith.

Smith The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is

This book written in 2020 reads more like a set of closely-linked essays than an integrated monograph. It is a pleasurable and stimulating read from start to finish, though. Author Justin E. H. Smith approaches the phenomenon of the Internet from a historical and philosophical perspective, emphasizing the human qualities and aspirations that it manifests, alongside the many ideas and achievements that anticipated it. Smith demonstrates its emergence from other inventions and enterprises within a larger sphere of technology, in a manner somewhat evocative of Heidegger, but Smith (rightly, in my view) slights Heidegger as “authenticity-mongering” (6-7). He expresses more sympathy with Foucault but criticizes and inverts that thinker’s emphasis on historical discontinuities of thought (12).

Current dilemmas of Internet experience are addressed in the chapter “A Sudden Acceleration,” which discusses the ways in which social media and other functions of the ‘net are hostile to the quality of attention, as well as subject to arbitrary dynamics of power and exploitation.

In “The Ecology of the Internet,” Smith not only questions boundaries between the Internet and other human inventions, but between human invention and the expressions of nature more generally. The mood here is both iconoclastic and heartening.

I found a little fault with Smith’s antagonism in “The Reckoning Engine” for what he called the “simulation argument,” in that he did not effectively distinguish between the simulation of consciousness and the simulation of its objects, sometimes falsely accusing expositors of the latter to be claimants for the former. I’m all for denigration of the “You might be an NPC” views of Elon Musk (who might be a boss monster), but I don’t think that’s the position reluctantly conceded by Neil deGrasse Tyson (90). This chapter also entails some discussion of “artificial intelligence” that alternated between useful insights and a few remarks that made me wonder whether Smith really understood why and how contemporary technologists distinguish “AI” from earlier forms of automation.

The final two chapters “The Internet as Loom” and “A Window on the World” are a return to strength, taking the angles of philosophically-informed cultural history and informal phenomenology respectively. The curiously upbeat ending reminded me a little of the Talking Heads song “Television Man” while addressing givens similar to those of Bo Burnham’s Inside.

The Ghost in the Machine

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Ghost in the Machine: The Urge to Self-Destruction: A Psychological and Evolutionary Study of Modern Man’s Predicament [Amazon, Bookshop, Abebooks, Publisher, Local Library] by Arthur Koestler.

Koestler The Ghost in the Machine

Arthur Koestler’s The Ghost in the Machine is offered as a somewhat downbeat counterpart to his immediately previous book The Act of Creation, which I have not read. It is, however, startlingly similar to Gregory Bateson’s Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. Although Bateson is putatively the more scientifically highbrow of the two authors, Koestler covers almost all of the ground that Bateson does with respect to systems theory, morphogenesis, and evolution, but provides much additional reflection on psychology and politics. Also, Koestler’s style is more accessible. Where Bateson offers a generalization of Russell’s theory of logical types to discuss interrelationships among systems, Koestler uses the hoarier and more approachable nomenclature of hierarchy. Koestler is also considerate enough to provide a few paragraphs of review at the end of each chapter. 

In this book, the author sets out to antagonize the mechanistic paradigm of science, and in particular its expression in psychology’s behaviorist school and its progeny. He offers in contrast his theory of “Open Hierarchical Systems” (O.H.S.), which he also codifies in an appendix. He also discusses the importance of what he calls paedomorphosis (163 ff), which commends itself particularly to the attention of those who recognize the Aeon of the Crowned and Conquering Child. There is even a convenient iconic encoding of the O.H.S. concepts: “the tree, the candle and the helmsman,… the two faces of Janus … and the mathematical symbol of the infinite” (220-1).

The final section of the book is certainly the most provocative. In some ways, it is rather dated, having been written in the throes of the Cold War. But the predicaments that Koestler tries to address — the age-old patterns of human societies regressing into repressive ignorance and tribal conflicts superseding human identity, along with the anxieties of today’s “air-conditioned nightmare” (327) and the approach of human populations and power to a vertical asymptote (the latterly-dubbed “singularity”) — have hardly been resolved. He suggests that these may be symptoms of defective neuroanatomy, and rather than allowing our species to be scrapped so that some other post-primate might develop a more coordinated brain and more enduring societies, he proposes that humans should develop and apply the psychopharmacopoeia needed to produce homo sapiens from homo maniacus (339).

In that conclusion, he ends up pitting himself against Aldous Huxley, but the conflict between their respective pharmacological futurisms is not nearly as clear-cut as Koestler seems to make it out to be. “The psycho-pharmacist cannot add to the faculties of the brain — but he can, at best eliminate obstructions and blockages which impede their proper use,” writes Koestler (335). I’m not sure that Huxley would disagree. Koestler dismisses “mystic insights” as being alien to the human psychic constitution, rather than the product of its proper exercise. I suppose Koestler would be disappointed to find that 21st-century psychiatry has indeed greatly developed psychopharmacology, but with an emphasis on individual pathologies still rooted in a mechanistic behaviorism in organicist drag. 

In any case, I enjoyed this book at least as much on a second reading, even as it has become more dated. It made an excellent sequel to my re-read of the Bateson volume, and the next title in this eccentric curriculum will be a jump forward to Jeremy Narby’s The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge.

On Bullshit

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews On Bullshit [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Harry G. Frankfurt

Frankfurt On Bullshit

Emeritus moral philosopher Frankfurt wrote a light magazine article disguised as a scholarly paper, which Princeton University Press proceeded to issue as a duodecimo hardcover with an austere, treatise-like cover styling. Surely there is an element of bullshitting involved in the very production of this enormously successful object. It has been through many printings since 2005, and is almost certainly far more owned than read — despite the fact that it can be polished off in less than a half hour. 

Frankfurt claims to offer a “theoretical understanding” of bullshit, commencing with a study of “the structure of its concept.” In practice, nearly the whole book — everything up to the final seven or eight short pages — consists of lexical comparisons and fussing over various denotative and connotative approaches to the term “bullshit.” In the end, however, a few significant issues are raised, or at least implied. Is bullshitting an appropriate implementation of an antirealist intellectual agenda? Does the bullshitter affirm or degrade his self-worth by his disregard for verity? Under conditions of sufficient ignorance, can sincerity and honesty be completely non-intersecting?

They longed for philosophy, for synthesis. The erstwhile happiness of pure withdrawal each into his own discipline was now felt to be inadequate. Here and there a scholar broke through the barriers of his specialty and tried to advance into the terrain of universality. Some dreamed of a new alphabet, a new language of symbols through which they could formulate and exchange their new intellectual experiences.

Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game: (Magister Ludi) A Novel [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Hesse The Glass Bead Game philosophy synthesis happiness pure withdrawl discipline inadequate scholar barriers speciality universality dreamed alphabet language symbols experience

Mind and Nature

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity [Amazon, Publisher, Local Library] by Gregory Bateson, forewords by Sergio Manghi and Alfonso Montuori.

Bateson Mind and Nature

Mind and Nature is Bateson’s last book, although two followed it posthumously, and in the colloquy with his daughter that closes Mind and Nature he discusses his ambition to write a volume called Where Angels Fear to Tread that would more directly treat concerns about consciousness, aesthetics, and the sacred. Mind and Nature is preliminary to that latter book (which became Angels Fear), laying out the epistemology and notions of organization and change that would underlie it.

This book treats the features that human thought (i.e. perception, ideation, logic, and explanation) has in common with biological change in individuals and populations (adaptation and evolution). Bateson characterizes these two fields (the “mind” and “nature” of the title) as the “Great Stochastic Processes.” Beginning with an emphasis on “the pattern that connects,” he introduces a kit of ideas with putatively universal application in what he calls — taking a cue from Jung’s usage in Septem Sermones ad Mortuos — the Creatura. He uses contemporary biology for his understanding of nature, but he uses philosophical materials and cybernetic theories in preference to the products of academic psychology.

I found this book a fast read, but it is not for the intellectually lazy. Although there is a glossary of particular words Bateson felt his readers might find alien, his general lexicon pulls no punches. He makes great hay out of Russell’s theory of logical types, metaphorically expanding its application to the whole panoply of hierarchical phenomena and systems. Most of the text is organized into long chapters containing sets of numbered theses, each treated in a few pages of discussion and example.

In some respects, the part of the book that most excited me on this re-read was the appendix “Time Is Out of Joint,” a memorandum circulated to the University of California Regents (of whom Bateson was one). In less than seven pages, Bateson sums up his most important arguments from Mind and Nature and applies them to the difficulties of governing an educational institution. The result is startlingly similar in content, if not in form, to Aleister Crowley’s early essay “Thien Tao: Or, the Synagogue of Satan.” Bateson and Crowley alike try to communicate the need for human striving to comprehend complementary poles, in order to progress by dialectical transcendence. It is a matter of enantiodromia, rather than compromise: not to say, “Light — Darkness — I am the Reconciler between them” like the officers of a Golden Dawn Equinox ceremony, but rather to say, “I am Light, and I am Darkness, and I am that which is beyond them” like the Crowned and Conquering Child in the utmost aire of LIL.

Language, Truth, and Logic

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Language, Truth, and Logic [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by A J (Alfred Jules) Ayer. (See also 2nd edition.)

Ayer Language Truth and Logic

“But it must be understood from the outset that we are not concerned to vindicate any one set of philosophers at the expense of any other, but simply to settle certain questions which have played a part in the history of philosophy out of all proportion to their difficulty or their importance.” (134)

Language, Truth and Logic is a brief and charmingly audacious effort to retire metaphysics and its related issues. Ayer is a mid-20th-century exponent of the Anglo-American analytical tradition in philosophy (including the work of Bertrand Russell and others) which seeks to reduce the discipline to applications of logic. His arguments are sympathetic to the earlier empiricists and positivists, but show more sophistication in pointing out and sometimes surmounting their shortfalls. I am most in accord with his “emotive theory of values” as a method of dispensing with the philosophical concern over ethics. 

Ayers’ professed opposition to “schools” in philosophical discourse reminds me of the ultra-Protestant Plymouth Brethren “coming out of sect” in 19th-century England: they paradoxically insist on a narrowing of their field while claiming to transcend distinctions within it.

The 1946 introduction to the second edition consists of Ayers reconsidering and fine-tuning many of the details in the body of the text. Accordingly, I saved it to read until finishing the original eight chapters. In retrospect, however, because of the intricacies of the arguments, a reader would be better advised to read the 1946 remarks in sequence after each individual chapter.

Although mystics (and magicians, to a lesser degree) are unlikely to find this book easy or pleasant, it would be an invaluable supplement to their intellectual diets. After passing through this crucible, they might proceed to the more congenial offerings of a thinker like Gregory Bateson.