Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Mis-Marketing the Moon? (2014)

From The Philosopher, Volume 102 No. 2 Autumn 2014 

Mis-Marketing the Moon?

The Philosopher's verdict: the billion-dollar photo-story

Review article by Martin Cohen

 Putting 'Man on the Moon' is surely some sort of an achievement. Yet how should we measure its importance? By TV audiences, of course. As David Meerman Scott  and Richard Jurek say in their glossy new book, Marketing the Moon, 'The Apollo 11 lunar landing was a television story. More than 53 million homes with television - 94% of all American homes - witnessed some portion of the … Apollo 11 mission… hundreds of millions more watched around the world.'

Yet only 3 years later, CBS News President Richard Salent would write in a memo:


Let me put it quite bluntly: I do not think that Apollos are any longer prime news and nobody has told me anything about this flight [Apollo17] - except that it is the last one and since it is at night, it will be pretty visible and spectacular… Further.. I would like someone to explain to me why a live splashdown is worth the couple of hundred thousand dollars it would cost.

The TV anchorman, Walter Cronkite's daughter put it even more bluntly. She complained of the sheer boringness of NASA's diet of golf balls and moon buggies. It seemed that having won the race to the moon, NASA lost the more important war for the world's imagination.

Not, as David Scott and Richard Jurek say, that they did not take home some important consolation prizes. A chance sighting of the crescent Earth as it was seen 'rising' in the dark sky by the  Apollo 8 astronauts as they came from behind the Moon after the first ever lunar orbit, changed the way a whole generation felt about their planet.

The poet Archibald MacLeish was moved to write:

To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together…

Scott and Jurek link this particular image, along with one of the 'whole Earth', to adding emotional force to the new environmental movement - epitomised by Stuart Brand's Whole Earth Catalog. This featured  the original 'whole Earth' image on its cover,  and demanded a new kind of thinking of its many readers based precisely on that new perspective: 'We are as gods and might as well get good at it'.

And technologically speaking, the Apollo program without any doubt incubated a vast range of scientific marvels, in the realms of  computers, and communications. In 1969, colour TV cameras weighed fifty pounds and the latest model was nicknamed 'the backbreaker'. It was in the teeth of scepticism from both the scientists and the astronauts, NASA committed vast sums to its US contractors to develop the kind of portable technologies that have become so unremarkable today.

Marketing the Moo
n records elegantly and precisely such details, but it tells an important and generally understated sociological story of how the Apollo program changed the way we see the world in a different sense too: it introduced new expectations of 'live television', of unedited audio transcripts, or direct access to experts and officials. All this openness was remarkable in the context of a space program launched in the  shadow of the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs invasion and driven by the military's need to 'beat the Russians'.

Yet I think that somehow, the criticism of Cronkite's daughter is nearer the mark. There is a smallness of imagination behind the Apollo program. The technical was superlative - the philosophies commonplace. The Americans savoured the sight of 'their flag' on the Moon - but it was, in a none-too-subtle way, also sticking two fingers up at the rest of the world. Since the astronauts 'came in peace' on behalf of all the peoples, couldn't the Stars and Stripes, at least, have been accompanied by a more internationalist symbol?.

When President Nixon telephoned the astronauts on the Moon, it represented a remarkable technical achievement but the dialogue also represented a rather shallow and partisan agenda, as did Nixon's signature on  the Apollo 11 lunar plaque. Indeed, as Scott and Jurek do note, there is something rather self-serving in Nixon's remark to the astronauts standing there on the Moon that 'this certainly has to be the most historical telephone call ever made from the White House'.

Of course, Nixon was not the only one whose words failed to rise to the occasion with regard to the Moon. The most famous malapropism of all time is Neil Armstrong's missing indefinite article:

That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

How unfortunate that the word 'man' is ambiguous in this context - it can also stand for 'mankind'. Thus the defining moment of the modern age is spoilt by a kind of non-sequitur. 'I think that was Neil's quote. I didn't quite understand it', said one of Armstrong's fellow astronauts, Wally Shirra, explaining things to the TV audience, back on Earth.

Other duff notes were struck during wrangles over advertising and sponsorship. There was even a rather unseemly battle of sorts between NASA and its Moon walkers over the 'souvenirs' the latter were entitled to keep for their retirement mantelpieces. However  the tacky 'death plaque' (along with  Bible and figurine) left on the moon by the Apollo 15 astronauts (with the names of both American and Soviet comrades who perished during the program), was smuggled aboard the lunar module without NASA's agreement or even knowledge. This piece of improvisation showed all the sensitivity and style of numerous other 'memorials' left along roadsides marking car crashes.

As Scott and Jurek say, the TV coverage of such a momentous occasion seems strangely banal in retrospect. Walter Cronkite, whose program for CBS was the one most Americans watched, was enthusiastic but strangely (and atypically) amateurish. The presenters of NBC's Huntley and Brinkley cover Apollo Show were worse still -  'throughly bored' by the whole business. That's  according to the television historian Barbara Mattusow, but they were certainly unashamed to have publicly complained that astronauts were 'dull as hell, nice guys, mechanics'. If only a TV anchor could have been sent to the Moon! 'Here I am, standing in the Bay of Tranquility...'  Wouldn't that have increased viewer interest? Well, maybe on Day 1. Because from the perspective of history, the Apollo 11 transcript (one of the many fascinating details in the book) seems nonetheless, to have the astronauts delivering the best lines, whilst the pros flounder for words . . .

EAGLE: Lights on. Down 2 and a half. Forward. Forward. Good. 40 feet. Down 2 and a half. Picking up some dust. 30 feet, 2 and a half down. Faint shadow: 4 forward, 4 forward, drifting to the right a little, 6 down a half.

CRONKITE (anchor-man for CBS's coverage): Boy, what a day.

CAPCOM (Capsule Commander): 30 seconds.

EAGLE: Contact light. Okay, engine stop. ACA out of detent. Modes control both auto, descent engine command override, off . .

SCHIRRA (Wally Schirra, former astronaut co-hosting program): We’re home!

CRONKITE: Man on the moon!

CAPCOM: We copy you down, Eagle.

EAGLE (Neil Armstrong): Houston.

SCHIRRA: Oh Jeeze!

EAGLE: Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.

CAPCOM: Roger, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.

CRONKITE: Oh boy!

EAGLE: Thank you.

CAPCOM: You’re looking good here.

CRONKITE: Whew! Boy!

EAGLE: We’re going to be busy here for a minute.

CRONKITE: Wally, say something, I'm speechless.

[A little bit later]

ALDRIN (Buzz Alrdin, second man on the moon): Roger, TV circuit breakers in. Receive loud and clear..

CAPCOM: Man, we’re getting a picture on the TV.

CRONKITE: There it is.

ALDRIN: Oh, you got a good picture, huh? [...]

SCHIRRA: There’s that foot coming down  now.

CRONKITE: There he is. There’s a foot coming down the steps.

CAPCOM: Okay, Neil, we can see you coming down the ladder now [...]

ARMSTRONG: I’m at the foot of the ladder. The LM [Lunar Module] foot pads are only depressed  on the surface about one or two inches. Although the surface appears to be very, very fine grained, as you get close to it. It’s almost like a powder. Now and then it’s very fine.

CRONKITE: Boy! Look at those pictures. Wow! It’s a little shadowy, but he said he expected that in the shadow of the lunar module.Armstrong is on the Moon!

ARMSTRONG: I’m going to step off the LM now.

CRONKITE: Neil Armstrong, a 38 year old American standing on the surface of the Moon! On this July 20th, nineteen hundred and sixty nine.

ARMSTRONG: That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind.

SCHIRRA: I think that was Neil's quote. I didn't quite understand it.

CRONKITE: Yes, 'One small step for man', but I didn't quite get the second phrase. If someone of our monitors here at Space Headquarters was able to hear that we would like to know what it was.




Never mind what The Philosopher says -

Take me to the bookshop!  

Marketing the Moon : The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program
By David Meerman Scott  and Richard Jurek
MIT Press, 2014, Hardback,, 130 full colour pages, ISBN 978-0-262-02696-3


Friday, 5 September 2014

The Russian view of the English as Seen Through Literature (2014)

From The Philosopher, Volume CII No. 2


THE RUSSIAN VIEW OF THE ENGLISH AS SEEN THROUGH THE PRISM OF ENGLISH LITERATURE
By Yelena Korshunova



The 21st century is already marked by a great increase in communication between the many different nations that make up the modern community. Stereotypes are an essential part of this cross-cultural communication, providing individuals with stable, if mythical, ideas about their native country and about the character of other nations.

Fiction has long been one of the most important sources of such ideas in Russia. Here, linguistic, geographical and other constraints create conditions of sharply limited cultural contacts and so for many years the  Russian people have drawn their knowledge of the customs, behavior and of the peculiarities and national characters of their neighbours through the peculiar prism of writing and particularly fiction.

Above all, it is English fiction that arouses the most interest in Russia, just as it does all over the world. (English is truly the world’s second language.) It is through novels written in English that the Russian audience forms many of its ideas about the ‘typical Englishman’. Even when Russians go on to meet real Englishmen, or women, they follow (partly unconsciously) these ideas. The flesh and blood English readers of this piece would, I am sure, be surprised both at their popularity in the Russian context – and by the characters created there for them. It is with this mismatch in mind that I argue here for a pause for reflection over the broad issues in this sphere of ideas as  part of preparing for a new generation to the balanced cross-cultural contacts.

The background to this article is research carried out in 2010 in Omsk, in Western Siberia, where the task was to try to find out more about how much Russian readers know about English literature nowadays but also to gain insights about how ordinary Russians imagine the English national character. It seemed interesting to compare the perspectives of two generations: that of the current generation of Russian students and that of ‘Cold War’ generation, their parents. For the research, one hundred families were contacted. There were two research participants drawn from each family – a student and one of the parents. The research project required the participants to rank possible sources of Russian information about England and the English, according to their perception of their importance. From this, we obtained some interesting results.

The most important things to stress is that both the student generation and their parents clearly privileged real life links with England as their most important source of knowledge about the English character. However, then the views of the younger and older generations diverged. For the older generation, their second most important source was English fiction, whereas the new generation students put in second place  things like English language lessons and associated English course materials, leaving English fiction to occupy the third place. Parents put in the third place cross-cultural literature, meaning books such as the English anthropologist Kate Fox’s book Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour (2004).

Since the older generation did not have any access to information about the English from language lessons and courseware, it was inevitable that they placed sources like these second from last in their list. Curiously, it was here that the students placed the Internet. It seems remarkable that despite the popularity and the constant presence of the Internet in a modern life, it wasn’t rated by either of the two generations of Russians as one of the most significant sources of knowledge about England and the Englishmen. Instead, knowledge obtained via the Internet is interpreted as transient, momentary, based on commonplace notions and information.

And so our survey illustrated that, one of the main sources of information for many Russians about England and the Englishmen is English fiction. But what English books exactly do we mean here? The results of the survey again revealed some interesting differences between the generations.

According to the survey, the most popular books for parents were the various detective mysteries written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in himself something of an English stereotype. After The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, came  Daniel Defoe’s classic tale of a man extracted from society:  Robinson Crusoe. But following shortly after this were some works of fiction of a much lighter vein:  A. A. Milne’s, Winnie the Pooh; Jonathan. Swift’s Gulliver's Travels; Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland; Shakespeare’s Hamlet; Jerome K. Jerome’s  Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog) and last, but not least, Charlotte Bronte’s  Jane Eyre.

This then is what ‘England’ means to Russians born after the Second World War. But which books were the new generation reading?

Winnie the Pooh came in top of the poll in the students’ view, followed by Alice in Wonderland and Gulliver’s Travels, with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in fourth place. No prizes for spotting that all of these are light, entertaining fiction. Half of the students read the more challenging books of Daniel Defoe  and Shakespeare, but few had read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Many respondents, both students and their parents, knew of J. R. R. Tolkien’s book, Lord of the Rings, but few of them had really read the book. Rather, they knew of, and had usually also seen, the recent, popular film. Which, incidentally, is set in New Zealand.

Despite the younger generation having supposedly studied ‘English’, the knowledge of the older generation about serious modern literature was much greater than that of their children. The members of this generation had read James Joyce, George Orwell, Lewis Stern, Virginia Woolf, Edward Forster, William Golding (who wrote a dsytopia with political significance called Lord of the Flies) and Benjamin Disraeli (more often remembered as a British Prime Minister). The overall picture reveals that parents knew the names, the authors and the contents of the English books considerably better than students. In addition, the parents give various and correct characteristics for many of the heroes of English fiction. That said, one or two books were equally well known by both generations. Which were these? Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

When asked to suggest some ‘favourite literary heroes’, an odd and childish mix emerged: Winnie the Pooh, Harry Potter, Alice, Peter Pan and Mary Poppins were the names offered by both of the two generations. For many Russians the idea of the ‘typical Englishman’ is associated more with images of Winnie and Pickwick than with more contemporary figures, such as Harry Potter. Perhaps it is because these heroes of English literature seem to be very strange, ready to do something not ordinary. But Winnie and Pickwick are not so simple and foolish as they seem at first sight. They are indeed very clever, optimistic and noble, and always ready to help their friends.



Popular literature is the dominant source of the basic imaginations about the English, particularly children’s literature. What image of a ‘typical Englishman’ does it construct for readers?



The list of the most often cited widespread associations made about the expression ‘a typical Englishman’ revealed a number of constant character elements. These are mainly positive features: evaluated by the participants as follows: punctuality, conservatism, pedantry, intelligence, politeness, accuracy. However, a small number of negative features were also identified by both generations. Among these: reticence, arrogance, pride, greediness, insensibility, a strange humor and egoism.

Both the parental and the student participants identified ‘the English sense of humor’ as the most important feature of the Englishman’s character, a trait of course emphasized in the particular literary sources they were using. Parents also noted, however, the eccentricity of the English, again supporting this idea by examples from English fiction such as Dickens’s Mr. Pickwick. Pickwick, to recall, is fat old man who becomes a romantic adventurer, and discovers ethics and wisdom as the novel progresses. By the end of the novel he has become the incarnation of charity and goodwill.

It is evident that, for the most part, all the associations offered for the ‘typical Englishman’, have a direct literary origin. They included such things as: a stove-pipe hat,  horseracing, a tail-coat, a pince-nez, a monocle, a pocket watch, white gloves, and so on. All these trappings are clearly drawn from fiction, not from daily life. Other associations are clearly connected to their literary and cinematographic image of Sherlock Holmes: the gentleman with a strict suit, a tobacco-pipe, a walking stick, tall, thin, tidiness, politeness, punctuality, good manners of behavior, restraint, gentlemanly behavior and so on.

The differences between the reading habits of the two generations led to significantly more character associations, by which I mean personal qualities such as pragmatism and conservatism being given by the parents. Students were much more likely than their parents to characterize the typical Englishman merely through appearance, meaning that their views were considerably more superficial.

The results of the research brought me to conclude that  Russians do have a well-defined and precise image of a ‘typical Englishman’. However, this image is not determined by aspects of  real life or from personal experience of communication; this is a construct, that has been formed by a more complex sociocultural process, among which the choices of the reading circle play a great role. The powerful influence of fiction upon mass consciousness is largely due to the fact that fiction vividly, holistically, and emotionally describes and represents certain features of the English character.

It is only to be expected that fiction should try to show us sharper, brighter heroes than individuals can ever be in real life. But in conditions when the image of the national character of one nation is formed in the minds of peoples in another country in many ways all due to the fiction, it represents a particular and  potentially dangerous displacement of the reader’s perception.

In the context of cross-cultural communication, cultural stereotypes, created by the literary ideas, seem to be primary, structuring and often modifying real experience. The way the view of one nation about another is created and develops, and the adequacy and coloration of the view is influenced by the fictional countries explored, and the choice of books becomes not only an indicator of common culture, but a real factor, determining many other aspects of the cross- cultural dialogue.

Comparing the reading circle of two Russian generations, we noticed a rather precise difference, which seemed to us to confirm a certain inter-generational tendency. The parents were seeking at a more realistic and a more complete understanding of people than the new generation. This in turn influenced their literary preferences and then the particular books that they chose to read in turn provided a more developed and complete view of the English. By contrast, the children’s literature popular with the students, created an image of the English in the students’ minds that was both more mysterious and fantastical, and less accurate or even complete.

The new generation reads books – both those drawn from their native literature and those from foreign sources -  far less than their parents. We can conclude that parents are appreciably more erudite in the sphere of the English fiction, especially the Classics, than the students, who often did not know or remember even the most famous classical or modern works.

It seems likely that this decrease of erudition in the sphere of writing leads to a shallower image of people from other cultures, and not only a shallower but a more externalized and random characterisation. In modern conditions reading from the very beginning is inevitably loaded by the stereotypes, but the problem appears about the quality of these stereotypes.

As the students in our survey are the generation of the future, it seems to us that our research reveals a need to do everything possible to raise the interest and motivation of society to develop its knowledge of other cultures, not least, through the reading of serious books. One element, we believe, is in the sphere of the expansion of the cross-cultural contacts between countries, of which, the publication of this article in The Philosopher is a small piece.

Ethnic conflicts may arise from the elementary ignorance of the national character of other countries, or the negligence to seek to understand the mentality of our neighbours; such problems should be guarded against and solved beforehand, not least by considering the influence of literary stereotypes. National character is a dynamic concept. Time will pass, nations will change and the contacts between Russia and Britain will doubtless soon be on a different level, forming in turn, in the future, very different views. We can only hope that the Russian understanding of ‘the typical Englishman’ over the years will expand and be enriched, and create a more complete image of the nation.



Contact details: Yelena Korshunova  is a social scientist and English teacher based at Omsk State University in Russia. She can be contacted via: omichka-1@yandex.ru

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Man, the Measure of All Things? (2014)

From The Philosopher, Volume 102 No. 2
 


MAN, THE MEASURE OF ALL THINGS?
New Efforts to Deconstruct the Writings of the Ancient Greeks
By Martin Cohen and Thomas Scarborough



Is Plato written in sort of code? It is something of a commonplace that Plato’s writings are both very important and very obscure. Indeed the obscurity has increased their longevity and importance.

Certainly, there is a large and powerful lobby of logicians and professional philosophers who insist that the writings all make perfect sense, if you are but able to see it, and a small but probably better informed body of scholars who say that they are playful, creative and frequently contradictory.

There is even a middle-ground of scholars who say that Plato's writings do make sense, but it is a multifaceted and changing one. Such talk is in the spirit of the French literary theorist, Roland Barthes, who some may recall, in 1968, announcing 'the death of the author' and 'the birth of the reader'. When writing begins, says Barthes, the 'voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death'. This is all the more true where an author is historically and culturally remote. All literary works, as the literary theorist, Terry Eagleton has put it, are 'rewritten' by the societies which read them.

From this post-rational, post-critical perspective, the reader needs to have a lively sense of one's own historical and cultural situation when reading ancient authors in particular, or they may lack the cultural 'passwords' to enter into the discourse. In this sense too, then, Plato is indeed written in a kind of code. But what is it?

The Plato Code

This question recently came to the fore in a popular book by the science historian, Jay Kennedy, entitled simply: The Plato Code (Penguin, 2010). Kennedy, as scientists do from time to time, stepped into the debates with 'magic bullet' insights into the Ancients. In unambiguous fashion, he claimed to have cracked the Code, and discovered secret messages hidden in the great philosopher's writings. His own description of his discovery is ambitious to say the least:
This is the beginning of something big. It will take a generation to work out the implications. All 2,000 pages contain undetected symbols.
As part of the publicity for the book he explained that:
There was no Rosetta Stone. To announce a result like this I needed rigorous, independent proofs based on crystal-clear evidence. The result was amazing – it was like opening a tomb and finding new set of gospels written by Jesus Christ himself. Plato is smiling. He sent us a time capsule.
Kennedy published his discoveries in the American journal Apeiron, promising that they revolutionised our conceptions of the origins of Western thought. Perhaps seeing himself as following in the footsteps of Galileo - who claimed in The Assayer that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics, Kennedy argued that Plato gave his books a concealed, mathematical  structure following the Pythagoreans. The Pythagoreans had declared that the stars and the planets made an inaudible music, a 'harmony of the spheres', and Plato created this hidden music in his books.

Specifically, Kennedy claimed to have found in Plato's most famous work,  the Republic, clusters of words related to music after each twelfth of the text – at one-twelfth, two-twelfths, and so on. This regular pattern represented the twelve notes of a Greek musical scale – some harmonic, others dissonant – in keeping with which Plato described love or laughter, war or death. He explained: 'As we read his books, our emotions follow the ups and downs of a musical scale. Plato plays his readers like musical instruments.' This insight became Kennedy's key to cracking Plato's entire symbolic system.

The book attracted a great deal of media interest for a few fleeting weeks. The Guardian,  called it a 'breakthrough', noting that of Plato's major works:
The Apology has 1,200 lines; the Protagoras, Cratylus, Philebus and Symposium each have 2,400 lines; the Gorgias 3,600; the Republic 12,200; and the Laws 14,400.
Alas, on closer examination, Kennedy's theory collapsed – not least because the ratios he claimed the writings reproduced could not have been the ones that Plato might have had in mind. One mathematically minded philosophy blog (Heraclitean River) put it like this: 'Kennedy's secret hidden musical code is absolute nonsense, as any music theorist (modern or ancient Greek) could have told him at first glance.'

Nonetheless, the fact that Kennedy's theory was taken seriously by so many people, albeit for a relatively short time, reflects a deeper view that there may well be something going on 'below the surface' in Plato's writings that our supposed philosophical experts are completely missing. This widely shared intuition is worthy of further attention.

The Socrates Code

Stepping again into the river, so to speak, is the German physicist Peter Hubral, with three new books, The Socrates Code, The Plato Code and The Laozi Code, which all seek to promote a common argument. Here we focus primarily on his book The Socrates Code (Lotus Press, 2014), although Hubral's paper for The Philosopher,  The Tao: Modern Pathway to Ancient Wisdom (published in Volume 99 No. 2, Autumn 2011) was an important first step too.

Hubral, however, is not on the trail of literal codes as Kennedy was. Rather he stands more safely in the tradition of 'the death of the author', pointing out that Plato – and other ancient Greek philosophers – may be far from what they seem to be to the (post) modern eye.

Plato's writings, Hubral notes, are rooted instead in a mystical view of the universe, a view long lost to modern man, and closer to the views of the likes of, yes, Pythagoras than it is to the views of say, Galileo, Descartes and Kant. Even so, some modern physicists seem to be more in tune with Plato than mere chronology might indicate. The Twentieth Century physicist, Werner Heisenberg, is an example, Hubral calls him not only a fine physicist but also a fine philosopher:
... we have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning. Our scientific work in physics consists in asking questions about nature in the language that we possess and trying to get an answer from experiment by the means that are at our disposal. In this way quantum theory reminds us, as Bohr has put it, of the old wisdom that when searching for harmony in life one must never forget that in the drama of existence we are ourselves both players and spectators.
This was a possibility of which Descartes could not have thought, but it makes the sharp separation between the world and the 'I' (between object and observer) impossible.'

Such a point is, however, a commonplace in Eastern thought, redolent of Taoism. And Peter Hubral's core thesis can be summed up as saying that what we conventionally study and talk about as being Ancient Greek philosophy is – as in the case of the science described by Heisenberg – a kind of reassuring fiction, yet repeated so many times that it has acquired the status of incontrovertible truth, despite being at root based on nothing so much as elementary errors in translation and interpretation – the kind where words that look similar to terms we use are assumed to have the same sense.

Hubral offers specific examples of the kinds of terms he has in mind: astronomy, atom, cosmos, geometry, idea, planets, practice, psyche, music, symposium, theory, and so on. He points to things like this snippet is from Plato's Phaedrus:
SOCRATES: At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters.
Hubral argues that these much pored-over terms have nothing at all to do with the Greek originals:  astronomía, átomos, kósmos, geometría, idéa, planétes, práxis, psyché, mousiké, sympósion, theoría, and even philosophía, but instead have completely different roots, that are better approached via the, almost completely neglected, Eastern tradition. Take astronomía, for example. In the Republic, Plato says that it forces the psyché to 'look up' and leads us from this kósmos into 'another one' (Plato; Republic VII 529). This language has nothing to do with 'astronomy', just as, he says, philosophía has nothing to do with 'love of wisdom'!

Eastern Analogies

The most difficult aspect for many readers (including us), is that Hubral argues that these key ideas can only really be understood by approaching them through Taoist thought and the practice of the arts of Tai-Chi. (In modern U.S. terminology (which is what Hubral uses) through Daoism and Taiji.) If you do this, Hubral claims  (in contrast to others) that Plato's words are perfectly logical and non-contradictory. They are metaphors that can be properly understood by the seeker who has the necessary practical experience to be gained on the Great Path - a central metaphor of Taoism. For Hubral, the logic is a function of the progress made on the Great Path: the more the practitioner advances, the more logical and less questionable things become.

Of course, few of us will ever travel that Tai Chi route, and even reading of Hubral's travels along it is testing as The Socrates Code uses not one language – English – as would really seem to be the practical way forward, but a melange of English, Greek and Chinese –  with even a little bit of Farsi and German thrown in. The end result is that this is a book which even the author admits is not really possible to fully understand, and certainly not without practical Tai-Chi experience. But there is such a wealth of ideas, many of which are profound and fundamental, and most of which are barely discussed elsewhere, that a little ramble is well worth undertaking. To better understand, for instance, the metaphor astronomía, conventionally rendered as astronomy. We read about it in Plato's Republic (in Book VII 529). Here Plato says:
Astronomía forces the psyché to 'look up' and leads us from this kósmos into 'another one'.
There is a very simple, almost childlike way to interpret this – something about imagining other worlds going around other stars on a starry night – and there is a very different one which says that here 'look up' refers to the concepts which are understood with reference to the advance of the Oriental sages on the Great Path (Dadao) from the conventional, lower world of everyday Being, to the higher planes of Non-being.Astronomía requires 'looking up' only in the same sense as does geometría (conventionally taken as equivalent to modern notions of 'geometry') that are both closely connected to each other. Plato says as much, writing: 'We should approach the astronomía in the same way as the geometría …' (Republic VII, 530b-c). Hubral discusses all this in detail. But his main point is simple: astronomía and geometría have nothing to do with astronomy and geometry.

Many other interesting examples are discussed by Hubral. Some concern Pythagoras, a figure so little understood by conventional philosophers that they often do not discuss him at all. Where we do read about Pythagoras, it is to the effect that he is supposed to have had quasi-religious views, not least about numbers. As to this, Hubral has no doubt that the interpretations are reckless. He compares the notion that the Pythagoreans worshipped numbers  to the traditional formula of the Chinese 'No laws and no God!' and instead offers a portrait which seems to provide a plausible way to unify elements of the thought of the Chinese Taoist sage Lao Tzu (Laozi) with both Pythagoras and Plato.



Take astronomía, for example. In the Republic, Plato says that it forces the psyché to 'look up' and leads us from this kósmos into 'another one'. This language has nothing to do with 'astronomy', just as philosophía has nothing to do with 'love of wisdom'!



One story, that many readers may be familiar with, is that told by Plato of a slave boy being taught 'geometry' by Socrates. And weren't the words‚ 'Let no one who is ignorant of geometry enter' written over the door of Plato's Academy? In fact, they were not, and it makes striking impression to go back and re-translate geometría as something other than schoolbook geometry. Hubral's interpretation is that it is not geometers who Plato invites in, but geometrikoí – the term implying, rather, those practitioners who follow the Great Path – the Parmenidean Path to Truth – in search of equality and justice. Such a shift in understanding would seem to make a great deal more sense.

Another much-cited and powerful image is that of Socrates standing‚ 'as if transfixed' for hours in the middle of the road while he seemed to struggle with some thought or another. We read about such things in several of Plato's dialogues, for example at the beginning of the Symposium (or 'Drinking Party') dialogue. This mentions, almost in passing, that:
... later another servant came in and reported that our friend Socrates had retired into the portico of the neighbouring house. 'There he is fixed,' he said, 'and when I call to him he will not stir.' How strange, said Agathon; then you must call him again, and keep calling him. 'Let him alone', said my informant, 'he has a way of stopping anywhere and losing himself without any reason. I believe that he will soon appear, do not therefore disturb him.
Such behaviour is alien to modern readers, indicating little else than that Socrates was evidently (a) eccentric, and (b) some sort of serious thinker. But to those familiar with the Eastern tradition, the sight of people standing immobile is not so bizarre – it is a standard posture of Tai-Chi, and if Socrates stood immobile all day and all night as Plato tells us, this could indicate not so much how odd a person Socrates was, as how experienced a practitioner (or a follower of the Path to Truth, to cast it in terms of Tai-Chi) he was.

Hubral puts it this way: 'Standing: The best posture to implement Wuwei.'

Wuwei is the Chinese equivalent of the Greek principle philía – it is the only principle that makes it possible to have 'stillness create self-movements' on the mental, psychic and bodily plane. 'Standing' is better for this purpose than any other posture. It permits creative, unconditioned self-movements of the mind, psyché and body in all possible directions to explore the unknown. For Hubral, it is truly unconditioned in comparison to assuming, for instance, that the 'book of nature is written in the language of mathematics', which he sees as a kind of modern nonsense  thoroughly disproven by Socrates and many other practising 'natural philosophers'.



'Standing' is better for this purpose than any other posture. It permits creative unconditioned self-movements of the mind, psyché and body in all possible directions to explore the unknown.




And so we arrive at another key element to Hubral's Socrates Code - the correct interpretation of the Socratic aphorism that 'Man is the measure of all things'. Hubral argues that this phrase is a misinterpretation of the original text, which means, contrary to modern interpretations, that man is not the measure of the world that surrounds him. The misinterpretation spread, he says, from the time when the Platonic and Socratic 'science' (the kind he calls unconditioned) was lost at its last European stronghold in al Andalus in the 13th century – and went on a triumphal procession to the Western non-Islamic world, where it was enthusiastically accepted by reputed thinkers, who steered the scientific revolution.

Hubral sees this loss as being reported by the widely travelled Arabic historian and philosopher Mas'udi (895 - 957) from Baghdad, who writes in Meadows of Gold:
During our travels we have consorted with several kings, as different in their manners and their opinions as are the different geographical situations of the countries, and yet little by little we have found among them the same accord in recognizing that all traces of 'science' have vanished and that its splendour is spent; learning has become too general and has lost its depth, and one no longer sees any but people filled with vanity and ignorance, imperfect scholars who are content with superficial ideas and do not recognize the truth…
The true Greek philosophy, Hubral argues, the one which Plato intends to promote, is not based on the familiar conditioned empirical approach, to understand the universe and the self that most commentators see in it. It is rather founded on a meditative self-observation practice to explore the psychic kósmos, which provides the beyond-the-senses knowledge (gnósis) that is summed up in the famous Orphic injunction: Know thyself.

Such extraordinary knowledge can only be experienced, not 'taught' -  and certainly not questioned. As The Socrates Code puts it, such knowledge is based on the principle that there is no principle, which means that it is completely unconditioned. Hubral says that all the vocabulary that Plato uses finds its source in this. Plato calls the practice meléte thanátou  - the practice of dying. This is dying to the conditioned, empirical world. It requires submitting to philía during the Tai-Chi practice!

For Hubral, then, this is the essence of Plato's 'code' or unwritten doctrine. Its promise is of a pure knowledge, knowledge that in Hubral's view, 'requires a master, who teaches his students to rigorously disconnect themselves during their practice from Being and thus recollect the gnósis. Yet even the master cannot offer the insights (the recollection or anamnésis) directly, but can only try to show a few how to attain it for themselves.

Man the Measure?

It is in the dialogue Theaetetus (at line 152a) that Socrates states:
Man is the measure of all things. Of the things that are 'as they are'; of the things that are 'not as they are'.
Hubral expresses the line thus (attempting to distinguish between two kinds of 'being'): 'Man is the measure of all things. Of the things that are 'as they are (in BEING)'; of the things (in Being) that are 'not as they are (because they are the transient appearance of BEING).'

The last phrase points out – contrary to what the first phrase seems to convey – that a human being, who confines himself to Being (the bodily world), cannot correctly appraise all things (in Being). Socrates regards the one-sided dedication to Being harmful to the psyché (Gorgias 493a): Sóma (body = bodily world = Being) is a grave of the psyché. A Platonist accepts the limitation and pitfalls of Being and carefully acts or does not act accordingly. He knows that Being is only understood if he also knows BEING. He regularly dedicates himself to the practice of dying to Being, to explore BEING, the things that are 'as they are', which are unavailable in society. He can then find out by reawakening his hidden eidetic senses that Being is the emanation (outflow) of BEING, also called ONE. Plato calls the practice also metrétiké téchne - the art of measurement.

The familiar sciences are dedicated to Being, and many of us believe that they liberate us from the dogmatic 'Do not question, but believe!' However, to investigate Being and to make use of it, we must in fact accept many conjectures. We do not question the five familiar senses, consciousness, reasoning and language. Scientists do not doubt the repeatability of experiments, validity of closed systems, mathematical axioms. They ignore undesired effects, and so on. In this respect, the familiar sciences may not differ from a religion. The American theoretical physicist, Leon Ederman, wrote: 'To believe something while knowing it cannot be proved (yet) is the essence of physics.'

Both belief and physics are conjectured (conditioned) and must be believed in. They are, as Plato puts it, confined to the 'realm of belief (ta dóxasta)'. This does not apply to the gnósis, which is immediate knowledge, and falls for him into the unconditioned 'realm of true (pure) knowledge (ta gnósta)'.

The words of Socrates, 'Man is the measure of all things', may be employed as a means for tracing the change in our understanding of Ancient Greek thought – a cultural litmus paper, as it were. It was a precept, a key reference principle, among the Andalusian philosophers, in particular of Ibn Tufayl (ca 1116- 1185), whom the 13th-century Moroccan historian Abdelwahid al-Marrakushi counts among al-Andalus's 'most versatile scholars'.

The Socratic principle was also the precept of Hayy, a kind of prototype 'Robinson Crusoe' of Ibn Tufayl's novel Hayy ibn Yaqzin (Living Son of the Wakeful One). Tom Verde, an American journalist who specialises in Christian-Islamic history, writes that the predominant Andalusian thought at that time was Platonism, according to which existence was emanating from a single source, the ONE. This was a time of transition from original to misinterpreted Platonism. Verde writes about the change from 'dogmatic and thus inferior knowledge' that preceded the 'self-taught and thus superior knowledge (obtained by contemplation)', which he attributes to Hayy and Ibn Tufayl.

To cast the contrast between Being and BEING in more (post) modern terms, one may contemplate the words of popular philosophy writers Jacob Needleman and David Appelbaum:
In almost every area of our culture, the realization is dawning that material and scientific achievement cannot of themselves lead us towards an understanding of the meaning of our lives and that unless scientific progress is balanced by another kind of enquiry, it will inevitably become an instrument of self-destruction.
Their words echo Plato's of two thousand years ago (Republic 406 e):
Researchers (scientists) belong to the best men in the world, who always formulate and continuously refine laws, without grasping that they are in reality cutting the head of the hydra.
The Regression

According to Hubral, starting with Ibn Tufayl, the following six milestones have been set up by scientifically minded searchers of 'truth'. These represent symbolic landmarks in humanity's regression from BEING to Being – a coming to believe that the idea that man is the (true, divine, pure) measure of all things was in agreement with Plato (Socrates) and the way to overcome was 'Do not question, but believe!' It was for them the approach to ascend to higher worlds. Hubral offers the milestones in chronological order, apart from his inclusion of Johannes Kepler suggested by Verde. The idea is that they show the close connection between the new, conditioned, Aristotelian science and the religious conviction of their protagonists.
• Ibn Tufayl (c 1116- 1185), a scholar who remains 'ignorant in the (conditioned) Sciences', makes false claims to 'experiencing the ultimate truth' through these same sciences.

• Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), who studied Ibn Rushd and believed in 'man is the measure of all things', concluded in Heptaplus, in the same vein as Ibn Tufayl, that humans – after living lives of rigorous scientific and spiritual reflection – are destined to rise above this world and enjoy reunion with the Divine.

• Francis Bacon (1561-1626), regarded as the father of empiricism, conceived of a mythical island in his New Atlantis. With an eye to both Heptaplus and Hayy, he envisioned an insular society in which the religiously devout inhabitants are also devoted to the pursuit of pure, scientific knowledge. His concept of purity is not, however, that of Plato, who connects it to the meditative dedication to BEING (the primeval source of Being).
Located at the 'very eye of Bacon's kingdom' is 'Salomon's House,' an institution that anticipated the modern research university, and in 1660 inspired the establishment of England's Royal Society of London for Improving Natural (conditioned) Knowledge. One of the Society's early presidents was Isaac Newton, who wrote more books on religion than natural science, choosing as its motto a shorthand version of one of Pico's favoured, autodidactic canons of the Roman poet Horace: Nullius in verba: 'Don't take anyone's word for it.'
• Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) who writes in Harmonices Mundi: 'Geometry is unique and eternal, a reflection from the mind of God. That mankind shares in it is, because man is an image of God'. He also writes: 'The geometry is before the creation of things equally eternal as the spirit of the creator himself and delivered to him the archetype for the creation of the world'.

• The translation of the Hayy (1671) by the reputed Oxford Arabist, Pockoke, published in Oxford. The work's subtitle spelled out the nuts and bolts: 'In which it is demonstrated by what means human reason can ascend from contemplation of the inferior to (conditioned) knowledge of the superior.'

• And finally to 'the Age of Enlightenment' which according to Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was the historical period when humankind gained the courage and determination to rely on one's own understanding (of Being). He writes in Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment? (1784): 'Enlightenment is the exit of humans from their self-inflicted immaturity, which is the incapability to serve himself of his mind without guidance of someone else'.
Hubral's point is that the above searchers believed they found the way to 'rise above this world' and 'enjoy reunion with the Divine'. They believed that they discovered the 'exit from human self-inflicted immaturity' by 'not taking anyone's word for it.' They believed they followed the path to 'Enlightenment' of the Ancient Greeks. Alas (he thinks) they did not know was that their 'superior knowledge' had nothing to do with what the Ancient Greeks looked for in the schools of the philosophía, which taught the unconditioned search of sophía (wisdom) with philía (Wuwei) based on doing nothing but letting nature act out of itself during the Tai-Chi practice.

They no longer knew that this was the Platonic guiding principle to withdraw from Being. It was the principle to have the psyché ascend to experience BEING and grasp the world more profoundly than they did! They were, unlike the Platonists, unaware of the restriction of the world and self-perception that humans are subjected to in their exclusive dedication to Being (Phaedo 79c1-8):
When the psyché makes use of sóma to investigate something through vision or hearing or some other sense … it is dragged by sóma towards objects.
So is it time for a general reassessment of those foundational texts of Western philosophy? If Hubral is correct that the spirit of Tai-Chi was central to Greek thinking, then we need to reassess not just the life of Socrates, but many of the key ideas in Ancient philosophy. Reassessing the ancients would bring with it a reassessment of today. One of the foremost consequences would be that contemporary environmental and social problems, which are a consequence of deifying man as the (true, divine, pure) measure of all things, could be replaced by less wishful and more holistic thinking, which was the true thinking of the Ancient Greeks.

But let us give the last word to Thomas Huxley, who in 1870 warned against:
...  the extension of the province of what we call matter and causation, and the concomitant gradual banishment from all regions of human thought of what we call spirit and spontaneity.
Alas, his warning has gone unheeded. Up to now.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

About Doublethink (2014)

About Doublethink

The philosophical cartoons by Youngjin Kang

The Philosopher is very pleased to add a new dimension to its studies of the great issues - a look at some of the deepest issues in maths, language and science all presented in a deceptively simple and definitely charming way by Youngjin Kang.

Youngjin is a natural cartoonist with a taste for the philosophy of science. Indeed, his academic studies (in the US) are within the field of electrical engineering, and if he has been drawing comics since he was in high school, it has had to be fitted in with the demands of everyday life, including recently mandatory military service in his native South Korea. (But at least the authorities allowed him to fulfil his obligations by working in Daejeon Municipal Art Museum!)

His method, briefly speaking, is to choose a topic and try to reduce it to just 16 frames. The narratives are not drafted beforehand but are almost 'stream of consciousness', something that might be considered unacceptable in mainstream philosophical writing, but yet somehow liberates in the format of the comic.

Why 'Doublethink'? The title is not an obvious match for some of the subjects covered, yet Youngjin says that most episodes do invite the all-important -second look - and after all, there is a duality in the format of pictures that contain thoughts within them. Youngjin says that comics convey information in multiple dimensions,  for example, between pictures (corporeal symbols) and writings (abstract symbols), thus presenting the reader with a wider spectrum of meanings because what one method cannot express can be conveyed, in complementary fashion, by the other.

Secondly, comics prevent misinterpretation. Since what is told by the writing often gets "solidified" by its corresponding pictorial representations inside a comic strip, it is much easier for the reader to grasp the exact meaning of the content while looking at comics than while looking at pure writings. And a third advantage of the technique is that pictorial language is universal.

Philosophers quite like cartoons - they seem to promise a more accessible way into dry and obscure material. But is the reassurance they offer illusory?

About thirty years ago, the Writers and Readers publishers (a radical press at the time) produced several books that used the cartoon format to present philosophical ideas, typically biographical sketches of famous philosophers, although some books also covered the 'isms'. More recently, and in a slightly different style, there have been  books attempting to investigate deep issues in ethics through lengthy cartoon stories. But Doublethink is really a unique venture and one that may even change the way philosophy thinks of cartoons - giving the method a little more respect in the way that Critical Thinking has begun to emphasise the extra insights that diagrams, mind maps and even the humble doodle can bring.

Youngjin says that one of the issues he has had to deal with is his tendency to write in a manner that sounds too academic. It is almost inevitable because the topics are heavy, but it should be minimised so as not to lose the general audience

He says "I think many writers besides me have once faced such problem as well.Whether to go deep and lose contact, or to remain in contact and miss the deep - it is a serious dilemma one is obliged to resolve (especially the ones who are obsessed with esoteric ideas)."




This way to the cartoons:
Stack 1, cartoon 1 Doublethink