Monday, 27 May 2019

REVIEW ARTICLE: Metaphysical Imagination

From The Philosopher, Volume CVII No. 1 Spring  2019  

Carl Jung surrounded by books in his study. A popular quote attributed to Jung gives the flavour of why Michael Moran elevates him to a key modern metaphysician: ‘Thinking is difficult, that’s why most people judge.’


Review article

By Martin Cohen

If the Philosophical Society of England has few claims to have actually produced any ‘philosophy’ over its 100 years or so, it has at least some associations. One, of course, is its historical link to the journal, The Philosopher, which originally existed to print the work of members, but now serves thinkers far and wide, and another, perhaps rather surprising one is to this book. Because Michael Moran says (in a closing note) that early versions of many of the chapters were read out to ‘the Sussex Circle’, a group of philosophers, hosted by Brenda Almond, loosely inspired by the ‘local groups’ tradition of the society. And indeed I myself had the pleasure of attending one or two of these circles and meeting Michael Moran there who was always, as he would explain, ‘in the process’ of writing his account. For me at least, this brought to mind the comment of the great Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard about the great projects of philosophers:
‘The System is almost finished, or at least under construction, and will be finished by next Sunday.’
Kierkegaard’s point being, that philosophers do not in fact ever achieve what they promise, and their great systems remain always in the process of being completed.

And yet here at last is Michael Moran’s ‘system’, or at least key parts of it, completed just before his death in 2016. The book has been self-published and no doubt it is too long to be suitable for a commercial press, and it will probably find only a small readership. But in this Moran is in a long and reasonably honourable philosophical tradition: much the same was true for Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and even Hume, although of course the writings of all these later reached the widest possible audience.

And all these are also unconventional thinkers, as too, it turns out, is Moran. He frequently challenges philosophical conventions, defenestrates sacred cows and freely puts on pedestals alternative figures such as J.S. Mill or José Ortega or even C. J. Jung. He recalls a letter by the painter Friedrich Pecht (quoted in Ronald Taylor’s 1983 book on Wagner) describing how he visited Wagner one day in Dresden only to find him:
‘... passionately absorbed in Hegel’s Phenomenology, which he assured me with characteristic extravagance, was the best book ever published. To prove it, he read me a passage that had particularly impressed him. I did not completely follow it, so I asked him to read it again. This time, neither of us could understand it. He read it a third time, then a fourth, until in the end we looked at one another and burst out long laughing. That was the end of phenomenology.’
Similarly, figures such as Heidegger, Derrida and Foucault likewise are regularly accused of ‘various kids of obscurity and obscurantism’ and in the process harming the cause of philosophical clarity. Nonetheless, Moran describes at length some of Hegel’s ideas, particularly in the area of aesthetics, and the question of the origins of his famous ‘dialectical’ theory. After all as Moran puts it, ultimately ‘what I think matters most in our engagement with any thinker is our own considered response to their works’.

However, to understand what drives philosophers to make their claims also requires us to first work out what need it serves. Because, as he quotes John Dewey in a revealing opening epigraph:
‘Philosophers are part of history, caught in its movement, creators perhaps in some measure of its future, but also assuredly creatures of its past.’
It is in a bid to see a little further, that Moran asks to include the ideas of the psychologist Carl Jung. Jung was, he points out, ‘determined to look in to the forbidden areas’ of human thought, and sought always to project a message of open-mindedness and the need to avoid either scholasticism or ‘preaching’, both of which aims Moran salutes while warning that the inverse tendency presents ‘serious dangers at the present time’.

This then is the context of the work: a book not for ‘fellow academics’ but rather for ‘individuals who are deeply concerned with ideas’. Thus revealing that he sees the two groups as belonging in separate categories.

The essays in this volume are chosen to focus on thinkers who similarly have embraced ideas. Plato, for paradigm example, is a thinker who seems to have embraced the imagination, or ‘insight’ as it is more usually allowed. Apart from the rather obscure analogies of the Cave and the Line, there is the passage in the famous ‘Seventh Letter’ in which ‘philosophical knowledge is not to be achieved solely by discursive, dialectical means but by a kind of vision’, as Moran puts it, rather formally. But then, warming to his theme, Moran explains:
‘From the time of the founding of the Platonic Academy at Florence in 1462 to the appearance of Bacon’s Novum Orangum Scientianum (1620) almost every major thinker discussed the question of the function of the imagination in philosophical, theological and magical knowledge.’
Indeed, Paracelsus, remarks Moran, ‘sometimes writes as if he thinks magia and imaginatio might be etymologically related terms’, before adding: ‘Sense perception and reason are the cognitive organs of the physical body; imagination that of the sidereal body.’

As for Plato’s ‘big idea’ of mathematics as the key to unlocking the universe, Moran sides with Francis Bacon and others who sees thinkers from Pythagoras to Descartes (but surely on to today’s quantum physicists) ‘approaching nature with preconceived notions of its harmonious mathematical structure’ and ending up with theories that are little more than ‘the speculations of one who cares not what fictions he introduces into nature, provided his calculations answer’.

That’s the phrase of Francis Bacon, in a text called Globi Intuallectualis. It is for detail such as this that Metaphysical Imagination is both to be valued, and also critiqued, as the book stretches on for nearly 800 pages with little sense of the needs to select the essential from the merely interesting.

But back to the nature of science and Moran notes too that Didérot substitutes the notion of scientific intuition for scientific induction, saying that the great scientific insights came about from an instinct or feeling - an esprit de divination - for what would be their fruitful conjecture. (Indeed this is the idea also explored in Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander’s book Surfaces and Essences: Analogy As the Fuel and Fire of Thinking published in 2010.

Actually, their book  is also something of a magnum opus of 500 or so pages and yet Diderot himself makes not a sole appearance there despite having asked, very relevantly, in the 18th century:
‘Is not experimentation often preceded by a supposition, an analogy, a systematic idea which experiment will either confirm of destroy?’
Anyway, it is interesting to be reminded that Kant (who himself was a respectable scientific thinker, indeed arguably a better scientist than a ‘philosopher’) worried that scientific investigations have the character not of a pupil who listens to everything the teacher chooses to say, but rather of a judge who ‘compels the witnesses to answer questions he has himself formulated’. Even Martin Heidegger is praised (and Moran is generally a critic) for having upgraded imagination ‘virtually to the level of metaphysical cognition’, the ‘formative ground’ of ‘ontological knowledge’.

However, if the role of imagination has been increasingly marginalised by both philosophers and scientists, so too has much else. Context and starting points, definitions and intentions have all been curiously ignored in the study of not only the history of philosophy but that of science. Moran recalls how Plato, for example, was studied at Oxford in a curiously artificially constrained manner. ‘What is X’ would be the topic of a seminar, and a singly passage of Plato would be examined from the particular perspective of one paragraph of one of his dialogues, with the rest of the dialogue let alone other ones, let alone an assessment of the wider context, simply ignored.

And yet, asks Moran, what was Plato really doing in asking his ‘What is X’ question’? What did he actually mean? These huge issues were simply not raised, instead Plato (and the other ancients) was treated as an honorary member of the circle of contemporary thinkers. Yet, as another writer, Peter Hubral, has detailed, in fact what Plato was doing was very different and had much more to do with a vanished mysticism than any modern linguistic analysis.

In consequence, Moran notes, his professors were often guilty of ‘assuming the future’ and reading into the ancient texts ideas and beliefs that did not become explicit until later. In the words of Quentin Skinner, a great many scholars imagine that they are approaching texts historically when in reality they are not being historical at all. It is the Hegelian Folly (we might dub it), where:
‘… the whole of Western philosophy is viewed, with unprecedented narcissism, as culminating in Hegel’s own system..’
And it is a folly where instead of celebrating books that are ‘works of witchcraft’ from which are conjured up all kinds of disturbing and provocative images (as Anatole France urges us to celebrate) instead books have become things that produce ‘the sort of arrested attention that makes us state into space’. (This phrase is that of France’s younger compatriot, Paul Valéry.) Or as Goethe once put it, ‘certain books seem to have been written not in order to afford us any instruction, but merely for the purpose of letting us know that their authors knew something’.

Likewise the view that a learned reading of a text is ‘the only important sort of understanding’ and that unauthorised, perhaps ‘deviant’ responses and interpretations are worthless has become normalised. Moran condemns this approach, and he is surely right to do so. Indeed, a cursory glance at the lives of many great thinkers and innovators find them drawing inspiration from just such idiosyncratic responses to things that they have read.

Michael Moran notes that the empirical philosophies of the Anglo-Saxon tradition reflected the close links of their thinkers to the developing ideas of science, whereas over on the European Continent, writers like Hegel existed in a semi-feudal situation of sovereign principalities barely touched by the industrial revolution. And that where Hegel and Kant were professors, many of the British philosophers had a parallel life in the world of affairs: John Locke worked as an administrator for the government, Hume as both a diplomat and a civil servant; John Stuart Mill as a colonial administrator. If the British warn of their philosophers living in ‘ivory towers’, it is surely worse to find the Russian-born French philosopher Alexandre Kojève writing in 1946:
‘It could be that the future of the world, and therefore the meaning of the present and significance of the past, depend on the last analysis on how one interprets Hegel’s philosophy.’
Indeed, writing this review now at a time when the talk everywhere is of the ‘rise of populism’ and the threat to liberties, it is telling to find Mill warning over a century ago of the dangers to democracy of the ignorance of the masses (particularly about economics and international relations) and the ease with which organised groups can manipulate voters preferences and shape their beliefs.

It is reassuring to think that Mill’s own reading of history is that there is trend towards the better, but this is tempered by his conviction that progress is not steady but rather piecemeal and erratic. But more to the point for Moran’s book, is that Mill like so many of the continental thinkers saw a relationship between the dominant philosophy of the time and the political realities. It is not clear however, whether it is as Marx put it, that the ideology is the superstructure of the economic ship, or whether on the contrary, the ship emerges from a philosophical blueprint. Nonetheless, it seems sure that Moran thinks philosophers should be addressing such realities rather than engaging in parallel ‘language games’. Words like ‘being’, for example, (which seems to have been most effectively explored not by the philosophers in their heavyweight tomes at all but rather by Lewis Carroll in his humouristic explorations of nonsense such as Alice in Wonderland) and also everyday terms like ‘green’ or ‘bald’ (as in Russell’s endless explorations of the issues surrounding the claim that the present-day King of France is bald’). Moran comes down heavily on the vast edifice of 20th century linguistic philosophy, exemplified by Russell’s efforts to provide ordinary language with a supposedly more rigorous logical syntax, saying flatly:
‘What is remarkable about this convoluted procedure is that at no point does Russell face the simple fact that most of us have no difficulty in finding proper names and definite descriptions meaningful, even when - and here are many cases of this - they refer to imaginary, fictitious, or mythological entities.’
And he adds, one can well understand why Oxford Professor of Metaphysics, Peter Strawson, worried that Russell’s translations of ordinary language expressions into more rigorous logical form might strike many people as ‘pointlessly perverse’.

The Philosopher’s verdict: ‘Many’ useful warnings about the complexities of simplistic thinking.

Metaphysical Imagination: and Other Essays on Philosophy and Modern European Mind
By Michael Moran

Fastprint 2016

ISBN-10 : 1784563161

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