Essay 107: Critiquing Geniuses Respectfully: “Stances” and “Circum-Stances”

A very deep intellectual exercise or “gymnastic skill” is the ability to critique a giant of intellect without flippancy or fear.

To acknowledge someone’s absolute greatness but sense human blindnesses and logical omissions is not childish or sophomoric but simply acknowledges the truth that one mind can’t “swallow” all of truth, as William James teaches us.

Take the case of Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), the Danish genius thinker. His thinking is endlessly deep and rich. However, since life is a mix of “stances” (explored by people like Kierkegaard with profundity) and “circum-stances” (the hyphen is used here intentionally to emphasize that these practical details and situations surround us).

Consider this insight into Kierkegaard’s family finances:

About his birth S. K. (Kierkegaard) once remarked with somber wit that “it occurred in that year (i.e., 1813) when so many worthless (literally, ‘mad’) notes were put in circulation.”

He had in mind the great inflation which only two months before his birth brought financial ruin to most of the well-to-do families in Denmark.

To provide for its part in the Napoleonic Wars the government had issued a prodigious number of bank notes, which resulted of course, in a complete collapse of credit. The only security which did not sink to a a small fraction of its nominal value was the so-called “Royal Loan.”

Upon that, because the bonds were held briefly by foreign governments, Denmark was obliged to pay the stipulated interest in gold. The elder Kierkegaard had invested his whole fortune in this security, and therefore, from the general crumble of values he emerged not only as rich as he was before but relatively richer than ever.

(A Short Life of Kierkegaard, Walter Lowrie, Princeton University Press, 1974, page 23)

This Walter Lowrie standard biography of Kierkegaard shows you how these “circum-stances” were a kind of material background or financial basis which gave him, Kierkegaard, the basic economic and financial support system his life “stood” on. His genius was his own but his family background and financial realities cannot be completely ignored. Lowrie’s biographical book in various places tells you how Kierkegaard went on to manage his estate and how unlucky he sometimes was in financial matters.

A person “walks” on two practical “legs,” money and health.

When Kierkegaard (or Dostoyevsky, say) maps out the human soul, he tends to ignore these “preconditions” or economic supports so a completely reverential admirer of his could say that his depth psychology might have been even better had he included these two “practical legs” in his analyses.

Remember too the first sentence of the great American classic novel, The Magnificent Ambersons, where the author, Booth Tarkington, tells you that the magnificence of the Ambersons dated from 1873 when they uniquely got a “bounce” from the grave financial crisis which sank just about everybody else.

This reminds us of the Kierkegaard family, 1813, when the family, whether by dumb luck or shrewdness, benefited from the turbulence of Danish war finance.

“Stances” and “circum-stances” would be linked in an even deeper synthesis where these historical and financial dimensions are part of the story.

Such a critique of Kierkegaard (say) is not meant to be brickbats for their own sake or cranky grousing or facile negativity but a signpost as to what is needed to get even more out of these geniuses.

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.

Essay 12: Can There Be an Archimedean Vantage Point Outside of Everything? Isaiah Berlin

We saw in our discussion of Descartes and his knowledge quest (we quoted “Meditation 2” from his Meditations of 1641) that he “flirts” with the idea of finding an Archimedean point outside everything.

The British philosopher Isaiah Berlin (died in 1997) argues that this is intrinsically unreachable and beyond our ken:

“I am certain, for example, that I am not at this moment the Emperor of Mars dreaming a dream in which I am a university teacher on the earth; but I should find it exceedingly hard to justify my certainty by inductive methods that avoid circularity. Most of the certainties on which are lives are founded would scarcely pass this test. The vast majority of the types of reasoning on which our beliefs rest, or by which we should seek to justify them if they were challenged, are not reducible to formal deductive or inductive schemata, or combinations of them.

“If I am asked what rational grounds I have for supposing that I am not on Mars, or that the Emperor Napoleon existed and was not merely a sun myth, and if in answer to this I try to make explicit the general propositions which entail this conclusion, together with the specific evidence for them, and the evidence for the reliability of this evidence, and the evidence for that evidence in its turn, and so on, I shall not get very far. The web is too complex, the elements too many and not, to say the least, easily isolated and tested one by one; anyone can satisfy himself by trying to analyse and state them explicitly. The true reason for accepting the propositions that I live on earth, and that an Emperor Napoleon I existed, is that to assert their contradictories is to destroy too much of what we take for granted about the present and the past.

“For the total texture is what we begin and end with. There is no Archimedean point outside it whence we can survey the whole of it and pronounce upon it.”

(Isaiah Berlin, Concepts and Categories, Princeton University Press, 1988, page 114)

The idea of the ultimate “detached observer” whether Plato or Descartes who can jump over his own human shadow and specify existence and “know the mind of God” (as Stephen Hawking proposed) is a kind of false and even delusional holism and not the educational “exercises in holism” we propose where all  exercises are tentative and have no claim to finality.