Songs as Another Kind of Parallel University

Meta Intelligence is a heterodox view of education where formal education (courses, diplomas, universities, fields) are incomplete and limited without adding informal education which is part of your life such as movies, songs, conversations and images (paintings, posters, etc). Your “lifeworld” (Edmund Husserl’s apt coinage) fuses all the kinds of education where the word education means thought-provoking and illuminating. Even personal experience counts such as illnesses or bad marriages! Only via this Meta Intelligence will you achieve a glimpsed “holism.” (Meta Intelligence is that meta-field outside fields, borders and boundaries.)

Take songs.

Think back to Jim Morrison’s classic tune, “Riders on the Storm” which begins:

“Riders on the storm
Riders on the storm
Into this house, we’re born
Into this world, we’re thrown
Like a dog without a bone
An actor out on loan
Riders on the storm”

This song (by the Doors), expresses in a simple way Heidegger’s notion of human existence as partly governed by “Geworfenheit” which derives from “werfen,” to throw. “Geworfenheit” means “thrownness.” Jim Morrison and his band the Doors are songphilosophers without (probably) being Heidegger’s acolytes. Max Weber, one of the fathers of modern sociology, uses the word “disenchantment” to describe the modern world, “Entzauberung” in German, where “zauber” means “magicality” and “ent” means “removal of,” and “ung” means “condition of being.” The magic here does not mean something like a card trick but rather sacred mysteries, perhaps like the feeling a medieval European felt on entering a cathedral.

Enchantment in the West survived in our notions of romantic love and was associated with the songs and outlook of the medieval troubadours. Such romantic enchantment which is fading from our culture in favor of sex is still celebrated in the classic Rogers and Hammerstein song, “Some Enchanted Evening” from the forties musical and fifties movie, South Pacific.

The song lyrics give you the philosophy of romantic love as the last stand of enchantment:

“Some enchanted evening, you may see a stranger,
You may see a stranger across a crowded room,
And somehow you know, you know even then,
That somehow you’ll see here again and again.
Some enchanted evening, someone may be laughing,
You may hear her laughing across a crowded room,
And night after night, as strange as it seems,
The sound of her laughter will sing in your dreams.

“Who can explain it, who can tell you why?
Fools give you reasons, wise men never try.

“Some enchanted evening, when you find your true love,
When you hear her call you across a crowded room,
Then fly to her side and make her your own,
Or all through your life you may dream all alone.

“Once you have found her, never let her go,
Once you have found her, never let her go.”

Notice that “chant” is a component of enchantment.

One could say that conventional enchantment has been transferred to the world of science and mathematics where a deep beauty is intuited. Professor Frank Wilczek of MIT (Nobel Prize) wrote several books on this intersection of science and the quest for beauty whereas Sabine Hossenfelder of Germany has argued, per contra, that this will be a “bum steer.”

You should sense that like movies, songs give you a “side window” or back door into thinking and knowledge, which should be center stage and not depreciated.

Movies as Your Own Informal University

Theodicy is the inquiry into the paradox that a loving God would witness and allow such endless evil as exists in the world.

Movies can be very informative as a parallel university which gives you a visual and story-based entry into such a problem or puzzle or conundrum or dilemma.

Take the Roger Corman classic film (based on the Edgar Allan Poe story):

The Masque of the Red Death from 1964.

Consider the following exchange between Prospero (Vincent Price plays a kind of “evil machine”) from the film:

Prospero: Somewhere in the human mind, my dear Francesca, lies the key to our existence. My ancestors tried to find it. And to open the door that separates us from our Creator.

Francesca: But you need no doors to find God. If you believe…

Prospero: Believe? If you believe, my dear Francesca, you are… gullible. Can you look around this world and believe in the goodness of a god who rules it?

Famine, Pestilence, War, Disease and Death! They rule this world.

Basic Story:

The evil Prince Prospero is riding through the Catania village when he sees that the peasants are dying of the Red Death. Prospero asks to burn down the village and he is offended by the villagers, Gino and his father-in-law Ludovico. He decides to kill them, but Gino’s wife, the young and beautiful Francesca, begs for the lives of her husband and her father and Prospero brings them alive to his castle expecting to corrupt Francesca. Prospero worships Satan and invites his noble friends to stay in his castle which is a shelter of depravity against the plague. When Prospero invites his guests to attend a masked ball, he sees a red-hooded stranger and he believes that Satan himself has attended his party. But soon he learns who his mysterious guest is.

Theodicy and the Explanation of God’s Coexistence with Evil:

Wikipedia informs us:

Theodicy means the vindication of God. It is to answer the question of why a good God permits the manifestation of evil, thus resolving the issue of the problem of evil. Some theodicies also address the problem of evil “to make the existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good or omnibenevolent God consistent with the existence of evil or suffering in the world.” Unlike a defense, which tries to demonstrate that God’s existence is logically possible in the light of evil, a theodicy provides a framework wherein God’s existence is also plausible.

The German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz coined the term “theodicy” in 1710 in his work Théodicée, though various responses to the problem of evil had been previously proposed. The British philosopher John Hick traced the history of moral theodicy in his 1966 work, Evil and the God of Love, identifying three major traditions:

  1. the Plotinian theodicy, named after Plotinus.
  2. the Augustinian theodicy, which Hick based on the writings of Augustine of Hippo.
  3. the Irenaean theodicy, which Hick developed, based on the thinking of St. Irenaeus.

One of life’s educational tricks (a pillar of Meta Intelligence) is to let the off-campusuniversity” of movies give you an on-ramp, if you know how to take it, into formal academe on the campus.

Japanese Philosopher KARATANI Kōjin (柄谷 行人) Awarded the 2022 Berggruen Prize

An expansive thinker who crosses boundaries.

[from Nōema Magazine, by Nathan Gardels, Editor-in-Chief]

KARATANI Kōjin has been named this year’s laureate for the $1 million Berggruen Prize for Culture and Philosophy. An expansive thinker who straddles East and West while crossing disciplinary boundaries, Karatani is not only one of Japan’s most esteemed literary critics, but a highly original mind who has turned key suppositions of Western philosophy on their heads.

In Karatani’s sharpest departure from conventional wisdom, he locates the origins of philosophy not in Athens, but in the earlier Ionian culture that greatly influenced the so-called “pre-Socratic thinkers” such as Heraclitus and Parmenides. Their ideas centered on the flux of constant change, in which “matter moves itself” without the gods, and the oneness of all being—a philosophical outlook closer to Daoist and Buddhist thought than to Plato’s later metaphysics, which posited that, as Karatani puts it, “the soul rules matter.”

In the political realm, Karatani contrasts the form of self-rule from Ionian times based on free and equal reciprocity among all inhabitants — “isonomia” — with what he calls the “degraded democracy” of Athens that rested on slavery and conquest. He considers the former the better foundation for a just polity.

In a novel twist on classical categorizations, Karatani regards Socrates himself as fitting into the pre-Socratic mold. “If one wants to properly consider the pre-Socratics, one must include Socrates in their number,” he writes. “Socrates was the last person to try to re-institute Ionian thought in politics.”

A Degraded Form of Democracy in Athens

For Karatani, Athenian democracy was debased because it was “constrained by the distinctions between public and private, and spiritual and manual labor,” a duality of existence that Socrates and the pre-Socratics sought to dismantle. As a result, by Karatani’s reading, Socrates was both held in contempt by the “aristocratic faction,” which sought to preserve its privileges built on the labor of others, and condemned to death by a narrow-minded mobocracy for his idiosyncratic insistence on autonomy and liberty in pursuit of truth.

Appalled at Socrates’ fate, Plato blamed democracy for giving birth to demagoguery and tyranny, radically rejecting the idea of rule by the masses and proposing instead a political order governed by philosophers. In Karatani’s reckoning, Plato then “took as his life’s work driving out the Ionian spirit that touched off Athenian democracy”—in short, throwing out the baby with the bathwater but maintaining the disassociations, such as citizen and slave, that follow from the distinction between public and private grounded in an apprehension of reality that separates the spiritual from the material.

In order to refute “Platonic metaphysics,” Karatani argues, “it is precisely Socrates that is required.”

Turning Marx On His Head

In his seminal work, The Structure of World History, Karatani flips Marx’s core tenet that the economic “mode of production” is the substructure of society that determines all else. He postulates instead that it is the ever-shifting “modes of exchange” among capital, the state and nation which together shape the social order.

For Karatani, historically cultivated norms and beliefs about fairness and justice, including universal religions, compel the state to regulate inequality within the mythic commonality of the nation, which sees itself as whole people, tempering the logic of the unfettered market. As he sees it, the siren call of reciprocity and equality has remained deeply resonant throughout the ages, drawing history toward a return to the original ideal of isonomia.

Expanding the Space of Civil Society

Not an armchair philosopher, Karatani has actively promoted a modern form of the kind of reciprocity he saw in ancient Ionian culture, which he calls “associationism.” In practical terms in Japan, this entails the activation of civil society, such as through citizens’ assemblies, that would exercise self-rule from the bottom up.

In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, Karatani famously called for “a society where people demonstrate” that would expand the space of civil society and constrict the collusive power of Japan’s political, bureaucratic and corporate establishment. Like other activists, he blamed this closed system of governance that shuts out the voices of ordinary citizens for fatally mismanaging the nuclear power industry in a country where earthquakes and tsunamis are an ever-present danger.

An Expansive Mind

Along with The Structure of World History (2014) and Isonomia and The Origins of Philosophy (2017), the breadth of Karatani’s interests and erudition are readily evident in the titles of his many other books. These include Nation and Aesthetics: On Kant and Freud (2017), History and Repetition (2011), Transcritique: On Kant and Marx (2003), Architecture As Metaphor: Language, Number, Money (1995) and Origins of Modern Japanese Literature (1993).

The prize ceremony will be held in Tokyo in the spring.

Education and Circular Causation: Everything Causes Everything Else

The student will have seen in these educational essays the notion of “Husserl’s rhomboid”:

The great philosopher, Edmund Husserl, who died in 1938, would bring a matchbox to class and show his students they see parts and some surface area of the matchbox (a kind of rhomboid, hence the name “Husserl’s rhomboid”) but never all of it at the same time. Students can walk around the matchbox and see facets. They can twirl the matchbox but whatever they do, the students cannot “espy” or glimpse all of it except in their imaginations, once they have been exposed to all of it, side by side, facet by facet.

Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish economist who won the Nobel Prize in 1974, has something a bit analogous when he speaks of “circular cumulative causation”:

Circular cumulative causation is a theory developed by Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal in 1956. It is a multi-causal approach where the core variables and their linkages are delineated. The idea behind it is that a change in one form of an institution will lead to successive changes in other institutions. These changes are circular in that they continue in a cycle, many times in a negative way, in which there is no end, and cumulative in that they persist in each round. The change does not occur all at once, which would lead to chaos, rather the changes occur gradually.

Gunnar Myrdal developed the concept from Knut Wicksell and developed it with Nicholas Kaldor when they worked together at the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.

In the characteristics relevant to an economy’s development process, Myrdal mentioned the availability of natural resources, the historical traditions of production activity, national cohesion, religions and ideologies, and economic, social and political leadership.

He writes:

“The notion of stable equilibrium is normally a false analogy to choose when constructing a theory to explain the changes in a social system.

What is wrong with the stable equilibrium assumption as applied to social reality is the very idea that a social process follows a direction—though it might move towards it in a circuitous way—towards a position which in some sense or other can be described as a state of equilibrium between forces. Behind this idea is another and still more basic assumption, namely that a change will regularly call forth a reaction in the system in the form of changes which on the whole go in the opposite direction to the first change. The idea I want to expound in this book is that, on the contrary, in the normal case there is no such a tendency towards automatic self-stabilisation in the social system. The system is by itself not moving towards any sort of balance between forces, but is constantly on the move away from such a situation. In the normal case a change does not call forth countervailing changes but, instead, supporting changes, which move the system in the same direction as the first change but much further. Because of such circular causation as a social process tends to become cumulative and often gather speed at an accelerating rate…”

(Gunnar Myrdal, Economic Theory and Underdeveloped Regions, Gerald Duckworth, 1957, pp. 12–13)

Myrdal developed further the circular cumulative causation concept and stated that it makes different assumptions from that of stable equilibrium on what can be considered the most important forces guiding the evolution of social processes. These forces characterize the dynamics of these processes in two diverse ways.

These essays that you are reading here are examples encouraging students to put causes in a kind of circle: history exists because economics exists because psychology exists because society exists because history exists. Everything is causing everything else. There isn’t a simple “linear parade.”

By way of contrast, in a person’s private life, he/she went to the dentist before buying the batteries and after having lunch. There’s a timeline of events.

In history, there are such linear timelines also: John Kennedy was assassinated before Donald Trump became president. You had breakfast before dinner. You slept before you got up in the morning.

However, processes (industrialism, migration, urbanization, inflation, etc.) are not analyzable as events like meals and one-time occurrences but are more like getting old or learning a language.

Multi-causal interpretations and circular causes get the student out of simple, “this happened and that happened” in favor of “this and that caused each other, going both ways and interacting with other pressures too.” Everything is causing and altering everything else in all directions.

Education and the “Knowability” Problem

There was a wonderful PBS Nature episode in 2006 called “The Queen of Trees” [full video, YouTube] which went into details about the survival strategy and rhythms and interactions with the environment of one tree in Africa and all the complexities this involves:

This Nature episode explores the evolution of a fig tree in Africa and its only pollinator, the fig wasp. This film takes us through a journey of intertwining relationships. It shows how the fig (queen) tree is life sustaining for an entire range of species, from plants, to insects, to other animals and even mammals. These other species are in turn life-sustaining to the fig tree itself. It could not survive without the interaction of all these different creatures and the various functions they perform. This is one of the single greatest documented (on video) examples of the wonders of our natural world; the intricacies involved for survival and ensuring the perpetual existence of species.

It shows us how fragile the balance is between survival and extinction.

One can begin to see that the tree/animal/bacteria/season/roots/climate interaction is highly complex and not quite fully understood to this day.

The fact that one tree yields new information every time we probe into it gives you a “meta” (i.e., meta-intelligent) clue that final theories of the cosmos and fully unified theories of physics will be elusive at best and unreachable at worst. If one can hardly pin down the workings of a single tree, does it sound plausible that “everything that is” from the electron to galaxy clusters to multiverses will be captured by an equation? The objective answer has to be: not particularly.

Think of the quest of the great unifiers like the great philosopherphysicist Hermann Weyl (died in 1955, like Einstein):

Since the 19th century, some physicists, notably Albert Einstein, have attempted to develop a single theoretical framework that can account for all the fundamental forces of nature–a unified field theory. Classical unified field theories are attempts to create a unified field theory based on classical physics. In particular, unification of gravitation and electromagnetism was actively pursued by several physicists and mathematicians in the years between the two World Wars. This work spurred the purely mathematical development of differential geometry.

Hermann Klaus Hugo Weyl (9 November, 1885 – 8 December, 1955) was a German mathematician, theoretical physicist and philosopher. Although much of his working life was spent in Zürich, Switzerland and then Princeton, New Jersey, he is associated with the University of Göttingen tradition of mathematics, represented by David Hilbert and Hermann Minkowski.

His research has had major significance for theoretical physics as well as purely mathematical disciplines including number theory. He was one of the most influential mathematicians of the twentieth century, and an important member of the Institute for Advanced Study during its early years.

Weyl published technical and some general works on space, time, matter, philosophy, logic, symmetry and the history of mathematics. He was one of the first to conceive of combining general relativity with the laws of electromagnetism. While no mathematician of his generation aspired to the “universalism” of Henri Poincaré or Hilbert, Weyl came as close as anyone.

Weyl is quoted as saying:

“I am bold enough to believe that the whole of physical phenomena may be derived from one single universal world-law of the greatest mathematical simplicity.”

(The Trouble with Physics, Lee Smolin, Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006, page 46)

This reminds one of Stephen Hawking’s credo that he repeated often and without wavering, that the rational human mind would soon understand “the mind of God.”

This WeylHawkingEinstein program of “knowing the mind of God” via a world-equation seems both extremely charming and beautiful, as a human quest, but potentially mono-maniacal à la Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick. The reason that only Ishmael survives the sinking of the ship, the Pequod, is that he has become non-monomaniacal and accepts the variegatedness of the world and thus achieves a more moderate view of human existence and its limits. “The Whiteness of the Whale” chapter in the novel gives you Melville’s sense (from 1851) of the unknowability of some final world-reality or world-theory or world-equation.

Some Historical Notes on the Three Quests of China: Dignity, Stability, Understanding

Dignity Quest

In “The Philosopher,” a chapter in the 1922 travel book On a Chinese Screen, W. Somerset Maugham comments, “He was the greatest authority in China on Confucian learning.”

The philosopher mentioned above tells Maugham: 

“I took the Ph.D. in Berlin, you know,” he said.  “And afterwards I studied in Oxford.   …  But his study of Western philosophy had only served in the end to satisfy him that wisdom after all was to be found within the limits of the Confucian canon.  He accepted its philosophy with conviction.  If Confucianism gained so firm a hold on the Chinese it is because it explained and expressed them as no other system of thought could do.  He loathed the modern cry for individualism.  For him society was the unit, and the family the foundation of society.  He upheld the old China and the old school, monarchy, and the rigid canon of Confucius.  He grew violent and bitter as he spoke of the students fresh from foreign universities, who with sacrilegious hands tore down the oldest civilization in the world. ”

“But you, do you know what you are doing?” he exclaimed. “What is the reason for which you deem yourselves our betters? Have you excelled us in arts or letters? Have our thinkers been less profound than yours? Has our civilization been less elaborate, less complicated, less refined than yours? Why, when you lived in caves and clothed yourselves with skins we were a cultured people. Do you know that we tried an experiment which is unique in the history of the world? We sought to rule this great country not by force, but by wisdom. And for centuries we succeeded. Then why does the white man despise the yellow? Shall I tell you? Because he has invented the machine gun. That is your superiority. We are a defenseless horde and you can blow us into eternity. You have shattered the dream of our philosophers that the world could be governed by the power of law and order. And now you are teaching our young men your secret. You have thrust your hideous inventions upon us. Do you not know that we have a genius for mechanics? Do you not know that there are in this country four hundred millions of the most practical and industrious people in the world? Do you think it will take us long to learn? And what will become of your superiority when the yellow man can make as good guns as the white and fire them as straight? You have appealed to the machine gun and by the machine gun shall you be judged.”

Stability Quest

  1. The decade of the 1850s gives a most revealing picture of the Chinese sense of things falling apart.  The Taiping Rebellion, convulsed China in the 1850s. It was a utopian movement which wants to go backwards and forwards at the same time and arrive at a historical paradise.

  2. From 1859-1860, the Second Opium War racks China. The British extract more concessions from the Chinese by the Treaty of Tientsin, a tremendous new humiliation for the Chinese. As part of Britishshock and awe” of that time the Summer Palace in Beijing is burned down.

  3. In Chinese society, to add to this misery, there is a tremendous conflict in China between the Hakka (客家, “Guest People”) with the Punti (本地, “Native/Original People”) called the HakkaPunti conflict, and is referred to in the movie The Hawaiians, based on the James Michener novel.

  4. All of this Chinese turmoil and national weakness is itself taking place in a global context that is threatening. Commodore Perry and his “Black Ships” sail into Edo Bay (now Tokyo Bay) in 1853, to dictate terms to the Japanese which amount to “trade or die” (an Americanshock and awe”).

  5. In 1857-1858, India convulses with the Indian Mutiny, which has been described as the opening chapter of the Indian Independence Movement. The Indian Mutiny, also known as the Sepoy Mutiny, was put down with shocking brutality. The Chinese watching the event, feel rage about the insouciant attitude of Westerners towards non-Western people.(A recent masterpiece Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker shows you the same insouciant attitude in the Bengal Famine of the 1940s and with Churchill’s dismissive comments about the human misery.) The Chinese who were studying news reports coming out of India suddenly learnt that control of India in 1858 was transferred permanently from the East India Company to the Crown, showing that the British could change the rules of the game at will.

  6. In the 19th century Chinese and Japanese thinkers came up with two definitive slogans, which they used to orient themselves.

    Slogan One

    “Western Technology, Eastern Ethics.” What is the balance point between West and the East? Xi Jinping (习近平) is also trying to find a balance. How American must a Chinese Silicon Valley have to be?

    Slogan Two

    “Rich Country, Strong Army.” How fast could China become a rich country with a strong army, without provoking a global backlash—think Chinese leaders since Mao.

  7. Certain opaque and chaotic phenomena in Chinese history haunt the Chinese mind. Mao was reading Chinese historians all his life to try to understand these phenomena. Chinese schoolboys are trying to understand the rebellion called the An Lu-Shan (安禄山) of 755-763, which takes place in the middle of the Tang Dynasty and plunges China into chaos. Leaders, scholars and schoolchildren of China want to decipher the events of this very classic rebellion in Chinese history and to understand what they are always trying to understand: how things go bad. An Lu-Shan was of Turkish and Sogdian origins, which created another kind of nervousness: turmoil in China coming from non-Chinese ethnic groups. Chinese brutality toward both the Tibetans and the Muslims within China echo these anxieties. This classical rebellion is interpreted by Chinese as the beginning of the end of the Tang Dynasty, the first Chinese Golden Age. China’s preoccupation with stability comes from its insecurity about national turmoil such as the An Lu-Shan Rebellion case, which could merge with foreign threats creating a nightmare for China.

  8. China was conquered by the Mongols who created the Yuan Dynasty circa 1300 A.D. China was conquered by the Manchus from 1644-1911. The Japanese assaulted China in the 1930s. Europeans colonized and broke China into pieces in the 19th century. The ultimate symbol of China’s defeat was the two Opium Wars—1839 and 1859—by the British. The tremendous humiliation suffered by the Chinese is masterfully conveyed by Arthur Waley’s classic book, The Opium War Through Chinese Eyes.

Quest to Understand

China and Charles Darwin, by James Pusey, captures the perplexity of the Western intellectual impact on China in the last few lines of the book. “But Charles Darwin honestly entered those mixtures in Chinese heads and made them different. So his influence was real. Chinese of course confused Darwin’s ideas and were confused by them, and of course they got confused in Chinese directions, but small wonder. Every people has gotten confused. For the fact of the matter is, when all is said and done, that no one knows what to make of evolution.”

Many Western ideas and philosophies are troubling and destabilizing for the Chinese such as, individualism before society and family; marriage based on romantic love alone; a society based on innovate-or-die.

The Chinese quest for such modes of stability has a perennial quality.

Interesting Intuition from Marx

There’s an intriguing and puzzling quote from Marx which is very informative in a completely unexpected way, when Marx says:

Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.”
(The German Ideology, International Publishers, 1970, page 47)

This seems to fit Marx’s obsession with practical circumstances as the “driver” and ideas and subjective states of mind as secondary or even derivative. For Marx, culture and consciousness are “epiphenomena” like the foam on a wave.

In a different way, modern philosophers have their own versions of this:

  1. For Wittgenstein, “forms of life” come first before all else.
  2. For Husserl, “the life-world” comes before theory.
  3. For Heidegger, “being-in-the-world” comes before theory.

Marx’s reduction of everything to material circumstances as primary causes of everything would seem to these other philosophers as a kind of extremist monomania on Marx’s part, as when he says:

We do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. Their material life-process dominates.

The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence.

Karl Marx with Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, page 47

This idea from Marx is both suggestive and obsessive and maniacal at the same time, what the French call an “idée fixe” or fixation.

It is more accurate to say perhaps that life and consciousness are a “double helix.”

Essay 78: Education and the Problem of Pessimism

Karl Jaspers was part of the great trio or triumvirate of German philosophers of the twentieth century, along with Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt.

Jaspers’s basics are (from Wikipedia):

Karl Theodor Jaspers was a German-Swiss psychiatrist and philosopher who had a strong influence on modern theology, psychiatry, and philosophy. After being trained in and practicing psychiatry, Jaspers turned to philosophical inquiry and attempted to discover an innovative philosophical system.

Born: February 23, 1883, Oldenburg, Germany
Died: February 26, 1969, Basel, Switzerland
Education: Heidelberg University
Spouse: Gertrud Mayer (m. 1910–1969)
Awards: Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels, Erasmus Prize, Goethe Prize

Our issue is not the interrelations of these three but the issue of Jaspers’s “pessimism,” given that we plan an education that completely “levels” with freshmen from day one and puts on their “plate” the whole truth without hiding or suppressing any dimensions of the life/knowledge fusion which is one of the backbone elements of this educational remedy. Jaspers argues that a unifying perspective of existence is impossible for man for the same reason that the goldfish is ultimately in the water which is in the goldfish bowl which is in the room none of which can be understood by leaving the water. Jaspers writes, “Existenz kennt keine Rundung als Bild…denn der Mensch muss in der Welt scheitern.”

(Philosophie Vol. II, German original, Heidelberg: Springer Verlag, 1948, page 647)

This means: “Existence cannot be completed or rounded off and formed into a clear and final picture…man is forced into a kind of shipwreck in this world.”

Jaspers sees existence or life as a kind of “task” or “drama” that one stumbles through and not an object that one studies like a copper salt in the chem lab. Life is always “on the run” and stronger than the runner. Every life, no matter how seemingly prestigious, is characterized by (to use Prof. Stanley Cavell’s words) “little did I know” and you might add, “even at the end.”

Orthodox educators argue that freshmen in college are not ready to be burdened by such bleak or lugubrious views but we disagree and argue, as the great Polish educator Janusz Korczak (died in the Holocaust, 1942) sensed, students rise to the challenge the teacher places before them. If you treat them as childish they will behave childishly and if you take them seriously, they will be serious.

Thus, Jaspers’s view on human life as always a confused and confusing shipwreck will not be hidden from view but studied unflinchingly.

Essay 58: Machlup and Knowledge-Watching

Fritz Machlup is an underappreciated emigre economist from Vienna. His 1962 book, The Production and Distribution of Knowledge in the United States (Princeton University Press, 1962), is a “bible” of knowledge-watching and the zones where knowledge meets information, where Machlup was very prescient.

Fritz Machlup was an Austrian-American economist who was president of the International Economic Association from 1971–1974.  He was one of the first economists to examine knowledge as an economic resource, and is credited with popularizing the concept of the information/knowledge society.

Born: December 15, 1902, Wiener Neustadt, Austria
Died: January 30, 1983, Princeton, NJ

Machlup distinguishes five types of knowledge:

  1. Practical knowledge
  2. Intellectual knowledge
  3. Small-talk and pastime knowledge
  4. Spiritual knowledge
  5. Unwanted knowledge

These five kinds of knowledge are discussed and analyzed in Machlup’s The Production and Distribution of Knowledge in the United States starting on page 21 (and are discussed in Daniel Bell’s The Coming of Post Industrial Society, 1976, Basic Books, page 175).

The more comfortably one can link types 1, 2, and 4 in the list above, the more “together” one’s understanding might become.  One does not have to be “dismissive” of Type 3.

Pleasant diversions are a a part of life and have their honorable place. One reason (to give a simple example) we’re drawn to poets like Wallace Stevens is that they seem to “sit comfortably” in their various (knowledge) roles: insurance salesman, poet, thinker and don’t “line up” or “array” these types of knowledge in a conflictual way but seem to “smile down” on all of them finding beauty everywhere.

Workaday knowledge might not have to “fight with” other kinds of knowledge. Insurance, say, is a form of risk-management and risk is essential to life and economics, as we have seen elsewhere.  Economics looks at cost-benefitrisk-uncertainty all together when it goes beyond the narrow confines of academe to become a fuller quest.  Cost-benefit analysis by itself is too restrictive.  Start with Machlup as a highly intelligent “backdoor” into these domains of knowledge, information, learning, social contexts.  This would help give you a handy additional “flashlight” on schooling in society including universities and campuses.