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Friday, July 15, 2011

Copleston, Metaphysics, German Idealism

Recently, I have neglected writing anything philosophical on here because I began to feel that whatever I was writing on here was forced and that it wasn't good, or that it was just little scraps amounting to not much, and I began to realize that I was not in a good place to write philosophy, so I stopped, and I was content to write a few book reviews. Boredom more than anything caused me to pick up volume seven of Copleston's history of philosophy (From the post-Kantian idealists to Marx, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche)  in which, while introducing the German idealists, we find Copleston's following remarks.

Now, it is immediately obvious that what we think of as the extramental world cannot be interpreted as the product of conscious creative activity by the human mind. As far as ordinary consciousness is concerned, I find myself in a world of objects which affect me in various ways and which I spontaneously think of as existing independently of my thought and will. Hence the idealist philosopher must go behind consciousness, as it were, and retrace the process of the unconscious activity which grounds it.
But we must go further than this and recognize that the production of the world cannot be attributed to the individual self at all, even to its unconscious activity. For if it were attributed to the individual finite self as such, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to avoid solipsism, a position which can hardly be seriously maintained. Idealism is thus compelled to go behind the finite subject to a supra-individual intelligence, an absolute subject.
The word 'subject' however is not really appropriate, except as indicating that the ultimate productive principle lies, so to speak, on the side of thought and not on the side of the sensible thing. For the words 'subject' and 'object' are correlative. And the ultimate principle is, considered in itself, without object. It grounds the subject-object relationship, and, in itself, transcends the relationship. It is the subject and object in identity, the infinite activity from which both proceed (Copleston p.4).
I can agree with the German idealists up to this point, and I can see the appeal of German idealism as a system of philosophy that does not operate on the level of empirical science, and hence cannot really be refuted by such science. The danger arises when you get someone like Marx who, both understanding and believing wholeheartedly in the German idealism, develops a political philosophy that, once applied, resulted in (more or less) a series of disasters. In that regard, we have to value a Locke over a Marx. One can also see the appeal of logical positivism, which attempts to show that this sort of non-empirical thinking is actually meaningless nonsense. But, that project was doomed, as well. It makes a difference to us whether there is an infinite subject behind all of our perceptions or if they are the result of dead atoms and molecules. The different senses may be captured simply: the world is dead and stupid vs. the world is alive and intelligent. At root, from the perspective of apprehension theory, both of these statements are meaningless because one cannot predicate anything of the world as a whole, except perhaps a predicate of philosophical logic, such as "the world is that which has reference."

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Review of Auto Mechanics by Kevin L. Borg

In his book Auto mechanics: Technology and Expertise in Twentieth-Century America, Kevin L. Borg traces the history of the auto mechanic's profession from the early days of chauffeur and blacksmith mechanics to the present day mechanic who works on computer managed vehicles. While Borg for the most part sticks to straight forward historical research, the book itself is not without philosophical insight and questioning. Borg's book is quite obviously fueled by a passion for his subject. It is insightful and a delight to read.

Through Borg's work, we learn the twists and turns of this untold and unknown story, and deeper questions always lie right beneath the surface. For example, why is the skilled auto mechanic viewed as having a low social status, while other trades that require similar knowledge and manual dexterity are viewed as being of higher status? Part of the answer to this question may have its roots in the history of the profession. When automobiles first became popular in the early years of the twentieth century, automobiles were the toys of the wealthy, and the wealthy looked for someone on the model of the "coachman" who had taken care of the stables to likewise take care of the automobile. Thus the chauffeur mechanic was born. This turned out to be a mistake that put a great deal of stress on many an aristocratic head of household as the "chauffeur mechanic" proceeded to disobey the traditional role assigned to him and use his specialized knowledge to his own advantage. As a result, a whole series of events unfolded: legislation was passed, aristocrats began attending YMCA courses to learn about their own cars, etc., etc. Borg does not neglect racial issues in the early days of automobiles as blacks were systematically refused equal training and service, creating a need for them to open their own garages. Nor does Borg neglect the influence of World War II on the industry. If one pays attention, one can see how that first arrogant chauffeur mechanic played his role in the creating a more egalitarian America (as egalitarian as it can be said to be these days).

It was shortly after World War II that hotrodding and NASCAR began to take off in America. While telling the story of Smokey Yunick--a veteran of World War II and famous early NASCAR mechanic--Borg speculates: "Perhaps [the] need for excitement to replace the adrenaline of war helps explain the postwar spike in automobile racing generally." Little gems like this made the book a delight for me to read.

I will leave you with one more gem. Borg quotes sociologists Sennett and Cobb: "One of the saddest encounters we had was with a philosophically minded auto mechanic. A part of him recognizes that he is 'deep,' as his friend puts it; yet he cannot really accept the fact of his intelligence. . . . For, if he is intelligent, why is he a grease monkey? . . . [I]t is less painful [for him] to think he 'isn't much, just part of the woodwork' than to respect his own mind." A little melodramatic, slightly existential, but I'll take it.