Friday, April 6, 2012

Current Philosophy Interests + Harry Frankfurt book review.

Consider this blog post an unordered summary of philosophy-type things that I've been interested in lately.

I'm only doing 2 subjects at university this semester so I've got a lot of time of to read stuff that I've always wanted to read and explore bits of philosophy that hasn't been covered in lectures.

At the moment my interests are:

Harry Frankfurt:

I've always rather liked Frankfurt's clear but engaging writing style. When I write essays I always try to emulate the style of writers like Frankfurt and Peter Singer; they both explain themselves in a way that is neither too colloquial nor too esoteric. Their claims, despite often being controversial, always come across as being blindingly obvious; it's like these writers aren't actually telling you anything new, instead they are opening your minds to what you already know.

Anyway, I've revived my interest in Frankfurt and recently finished reading 'The reasons of Love'. I enjoyed it. Frankfurt starts of by making the valid observation that before one can start making decisions about what they do with their life they should first establish what it is that they value; what is is that they care about. An illuminating quote from the first chapter vividly paints the picture:

If we are to resolve out difficulties and hesitations in settling upon a way to live, what we need most is fundamentally is not reasons or proofs. It is clarity and confidence. Coping with our troubled and restless uncertainty about how to live does not require us to discover what way of living can be justified by definitive argument. Rather, it requires us simply to understand what it is that we ourselves really care about, and to be decisively and robustly confident in caring about it.

Frankfurt puts forth the claim that there are certain things that are almost universally cared about; these are things like one's own survival, and the well-being of one's children. Frankfurt argues that there is no need for a philosophical justification behind these motivating forces. These type of drives are innate and irrational. They are 'commands of love'. 

The definition of love is formulated that it ignores the qualities of the beloved (or at least makes them irrelevant). Objects of our love are valuable because we love them, not the other way around. Frankfurt makes it clear that we cannot choose what to love. It is here that Frankfurt's seminal ideas on freedom are re-introduced. Recognizing what it is that we love is the first difficult step towards fulfillment and freedom. It is common that we may have conflicting loves also. These are part of the difficulties we face when trying to understand ourselves.

Ultimately, Frankfurt claims that these difficulties are worth it because of the intrinsic importance in having something that we love (even if that something is ourselves). Having something to love provides us with a 'final end' for our actions and allows us to escape the curses of hedonic treadmills or adaptive preferences. Love is unique in that it can free us from uncertainness and hesitation. Frankfurt tells a story about Bertrand Russell who once alluded to the "restfulness of mathematical certainty". This restfulness; the sensation of finality, that feeling of illumination, that moment of clarity that occurs when you solve a maths problem or confidently make an important decision; these sensations are linked to an acceptance of a something that is believed to be 'so true' that the search for further meaning is put to rest. Love instills this same feeling in the lover. When one is in love certain decisions often become easier than before. Indecision is often left behind when one finds themselves in love with something - the fact that they love it is enough reason to pursue it. What we love acquires value for us because we love it. 

Frankfurt spends a lot of time (perhaps just a little too much time) in the middle of the book defending his views against imaginary criticisms. It gets a little bit repetitive.

Towards the end it becomes quite interesting and unique (although it's perhaps the shakiest section in terms of philosophical rigor) when Frankfurt discusses self-love. Frankfurt rejects the cultural taboo against loving oneself and instead re-frames it as a necessary component of a fulfilling life. 'Fulfilling' isn't actually word used in 'The reasons of love'. Frankfurt instead refers to a sort of 'inner harmony' that is experienced when one loves him/herself. 

Insofar as a person loves himself - in other words, to the extent that he is volitionally wholehearted - he does not resist any movements of his own will. He is not at odds with himself; he does not oppose, or seek to impede, the expression of practical reasoning and in conduct of whatever his self-love entails. He is free in loving what he loves, at least in the sense that his loving is not obstructed or interfered with by himself.

This whole passage just feels so distinctively Frankfur-ian to me. When I read Frankfurt his writing style is so honest and matter-of-fact that it feels as if he is writing based on extensive introspection rather than a steady session trying to balance out truth trees. This is probably the reason for which my interest in him isn't shared by many of my peers. I, however, consider the introspective style of writing to be highly engaging and aim for the same sort of style in my own work.  

Next up is his work 'Necessity, Volition, and Love'. I'll probably review it here too.

David Foster Wallace's 'Fate, Time, and Language'.

I've heard a LOT about David Foster Wallace but have never really been motivated to read any of his books. Infinite Jest just seemed overwhelming and most of his other works (from my limited research on him) seemed to be collections of short stories - something that I'm not really into. Nevertheless I found a book by Wallace released posthumously entitled 'Fate, Time, and Language' at the uni library and thought I'd have a look. Essentially it's Wallace's honors thesis (or maybe it's his PHD - I can't remember) that he wrote at university based on Richard Taylor's writings about Fatalism.

I'm not sure how I'll go with this one. Whilst I desperately want to say that I'll love every moment of the obscure metaphysics and modal logic the chances are that I'll probably find it a grind (if I even finish it). That being said so far it's been pretty engaging stuff and the actual thesis is only a small part of the book. The rest is notes about fatalism, it's critics, and it's supporters. So far, so good, if I finish it the review will be here.

The 'Abolitionist Project'.

I found this audio track whilst stumbling blindly through the interwebs:
I found it very thought provoking and interesting. As a bonus it's also somewhat related to Bio-ethics, which I'm currently studying. The abolitionist project is the aim to eliminate the suffering of all sentient creatures through the use of science: Essentially it's just taking utilitarianism to it's ultimate conclusion. Just reading up on it feels like I'm reading science fiction literature and it would be all too easy to dismiss it as grandiose ideas without real thought. This, however, would be far from the truth. It seems more likely that societal barriers will prevent the abolitionist project taking off rather than a lack of scientific innovation. We've already discovered drugs that can make mice 10 times more effective at processing energy (see 'Supermouse' below) and it is speculated that the same drug could be effective on humans.



It's certainly interesting stuff that's worth giving a serious thought. As the 'abolitionist project' website proudly quotes:

All truth passes through three stages. First it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.  - Arthur Shopenhauer.

What a great quote.

The intrinsic value of Life.

This has been of much interest to me since starting bioethics. Is human life intrinsically valuable? When I asked my classmates the answer has intuitively positive, but I'm not so convinced. It's not that I don't enjoy life - I do. It's just that I can't deny the fact that if I were to painlessly die in my sleep I wouldn't suffer from it. Those close to me would, but I wouldn't.

I've also always found it hard to accept calculations of aggregate happiness that lead to things like the Parfit's repugnant conclusion. Adding more people with 'live's worth living' to the world doesn't seem to me like it's doing any good. If anything it's just adding a drain on the earth's resources. It's a whole different matter once we're here - As soon as we exist we begin making commitments to the earth that make it hard to leave. We establish relationships, responsibilities, and the capacity to understand and feel both physical and emotional pain. BUT, if we were all to decide that we didn't want children and life on earth were to simply end I don't see it as a particular loss. I see it as a decidedly 'neutral' event.

I also see existence as fairly neutral. That's not to say that my average state of mind is neutral - it's not. But just that the 'value' of existence can't be calculated as a positive figure. it's just something that 'is'. Intuitively it seems like trying to ascribe a value to life is like trying to establish value to a fact about the world, like, say, the weight of a feather. Is the weight of a feather valuable? Is life valuable? Both seem like equally meaningless questions to me.

Anyway, this is an entirely new part of philosophy for me, so who knows where my position might be after reading up on the stuff. I'm going to start with David Benatar's controversial book entitled "Better never to have been: The harm of coming into existence". I'm very keen to read it.




1 comment:

  1. I liked what you said here, "it's like these writers aren't actually telling you anything new, instead they are opening your minds to what you already know."

    Ecclesiastes 1:8-9 says something to which I find somewhat similar, "All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."