Saturday, January 15, 2011

In the Penal Colony

Franz Kafka: The Complete StoriesFranz Kafka: The Complete Stories by Franz Kafka

A Goodreads friend makes the point that Kafka is funny.  He's probably the funniest writer I've ever read.  Partly the world of paranoid fantasy he depicts is just so familiar to me.  (What?  Is there something wrong with that?  Why are you judging me?)  I have laughed till I was in tears reading Kafka, and supposedly Kafka himself, his friend Max Brod, and others of his tiny Prague literary circle would often laugh quite a bit when he read aloud from his work.  That said, it's true that Kafka's subject matter never strays far from paranoia, self-loathing, loneliness, and self-destruction; so how can it be funny?

Kafka is the great innovator of psychologically sophisticated expressionism.  Many writers before him depicted their dreams and imaginings, but Kafka does so with a certain groundbreaking insight into the psychological motives and irrational methods of dream-life.   And I believe it's that sophisticated faculty of psychological observation that makes him so funny.  More than any other writer, Kafka is alert to the conscience as a potentially overactive and irrational psychical force, a wily, tormenting inner adversary which uses the imagination as its weapon in its internecine wars against the human self.  It's that insight that allows him to parody (and describe) the conscience and its irrational methods, rather than be duped by them and take them at face value.  Borges, who was so influenced by Kafka (he invokes the name "Qaphqa" in his Kafkaesque story "The Lottery in Babylon") is rarely very funny precisely because he chooses to take seriously the perversities perpetrated on him by his conscience.  The Borgesian conscience bricks Borges up in a labyrinth, but unlike Kafka he mistakes the bricks and walls of the labyrinth for reality.  He isn't onto the mischief of his own conscience and cannot laugh at it as Kafka can.  This makes Borges rather lugubrious reading, even though his conscience destroys him and his claim on reality with grace and elegant persuasion.

Kafka's short story "In the Penal Colony" is the finest parodic description of overzealous conscience ever written.  It's about a torture device for prisoners (that is faintly reminiscent of Pilates equipment) and the penal colony where prisoners are senselessly tortured.  Try reading the story as an allegory on the structure and function of the human conscience.  Where it says "penal colony" read "conscience."  Where it says "our former Commandant" read "childhood."  Certainly, where it describes the torture device, read "conscience."  "It's a remarkable piece of apparatus," says the officer in the very first line.

"In the Penal Colony," like "Metamorphosis" and the novel The Trial, is of course tragic as well as witty.  Every Kafka story is wise, profound, darkly humorous in some way, and so dense with knowledge, joy, and pain that I have to read a little bit and walk away (it's hard for me to read many Kafka stories in a row).  Some stories are more subdued (like "In the Penal Colony" or "The Hunger Artist"), some more flagrantly ridiculous.  "The Judgment" is flat-out hilarious.  So is "Report to an Academy."  But every Kafka story is brilliant, crafted with a blend of artistic control, imaginative freedom, and fearlessly scientific self-observation unique to Kafka, and realized with a nuance and specificity found only in the greatest of all works of literature.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Philosopher King

RepublicRepublic by Plato

The Republic is amazing in that it contains inchoate within it many of the major arguments later put forward by Descartes, Hobbes, Bacon, Mill, Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, Wittgenstein, and many others.  Because of the style--elenchus, or Socratic dialogue--Plato's many profound insights are embedded in a rambling river of desultory, all-night sort of conversation between Socrates and Plato's brothers (or their fictive analogues, anyway) and several other interlocutors who are probably sorry they ever showed up.  The style is, however, fairly easy reading, at least in G.M.A. Grube's translation.

Among the major useful ideas: that our morals, laws, and values may in some cases only reflect the self-interest of the creators of those laws and values (both Nietzsche and Marx's thinking pivots on this fulcrum) and that people may not be aware of this, may take their values for granted without cynicism, and that the ruling class would have it that way; that people's minds contain conflicting attitudes to the same objects and that among these attitudes are--in everyone--"lawless desires," including even an unconscious desire of incest with one's mother and of parricide, and that such desires ought to be subject to rational consideration, modification, and control (Freud would in general agree); that knowledge can be more or less certain and that the philosopher seeks the daylight of certain truth when confronted with the uncertainty of incomplete perception, such as in the case of shadows and darkness; that the pursuit of truth is the highest pursuit.  You will also find such famous passages in here as "The Parable of the Cave"--a useful contribution to epistemology and at the same time the basis for a good deal of other-worldly fabulism--and such famous concepts as the "philosopher-king," the latter half of which George Bush so well exemplified.

The Republic is also, however, pervaded by a corruptive anxiety about the aforementioned "lawless desires" and the threat they represent to the security and well-being of a civic population.  This anxiety drives Plato to some extraordinarily irrational conclusions.  For example, "[H]ymns to the gods and eulogies to good people are the only poetry we can admit into our city.  If you admit the pleasure-giving Muse, whether in lyric or epic poetry, pleasure and pain will be kings in your city instead of law...."  Hmm.  Here is another whopper: "[in a spirit of approval] Nor, I believe, does Homer mention sweet desserts anywhere."  Well, that is, after all, what we so much admire about Homer--he never tempted his readers to binge on chocolate, or even Nilla wafers.  Plato's views on art and education, which make up probably a third or a half of the text--are in general off the reservation.  Plato well understands the deep-seated irrationality of so much instinctual human motivation and the importance of reason, but he overlooks the equal human propensity for irrationality of conscience--the sort that could be said to drive fascism and other forms of political and religious extremism.  But perhaps this irrational censoriousness belonged to Socrates, truly.  Perhaps Plato was blinded by love of his dead mentor, to whom he devoted so much of his life and thought.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Explanation of Explanations

Aspects of Scientific ExplanationAspects of Scientific Explanation by Carl G. Hempel

In 1965 Carl Hempel sought to describe the process of scientific explanation.  While it may not sound like an original or important thing to do, it was.  For now you'll just have to trust me because I'm the sort of person that electively reads books entitled Aspects of Scientific Explanation.

As you might guess, Hempel's account isn't exactly entertaining, nor is it intended to be, but it is the clearest and most organized account of the subject I know.  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says that "recent discussion [of scientific explanation] really begins with the development of the Deductive-Nomological (DN) model. This model has had many advocates (including Popper 1935, 1959, Braithwaite 1953, Gardiner, 1959, Nagel 1961) but unquestionably the most detailed and influential statement is due to Carl Hempel."

Why is it important to describe or define scientific explanation?  Consider a recent article in The New York Times about the Catholic Church's revival of exorcism.  Here is a passage from the article:

"Some of the classic signs of possession by a demon, Bishop Paprocki said, include speaking in a language the person has never learned; extraordinary shows of strength; a sudden aversion to spiritual things like holy water or the name of God; and severe sleeplessness, lack of appetite and cutting, scratching and biting the skin.  A person who claims to be possessed must be evaluated by doctors to rule out a mental or physical illness, according to Vatican guidelines issued in 1999, which superseded the previous guidelines, issued in 1614."  Progress?  ("Not knowing what to do, we ape our ancestors; the churches stagger backward to the mummeries of the dark ages." --Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Devil possession is a way of explaining the symptoms listed above.  A particular mental illness would be another way.  The explanation that you credit has serious implications for what you do about the problem.

Everybody attempts to explain stuff to themselves and others every single day, and arguments about the validity of various explanations are plentiful in a society with the right to freedom of expression.  The senators from Oklahoma don't believe that global warming is explained by the greenhouse effect--whether they're right or they're wrong, their opinion means something significant in the computation of our national response and therefore means something for the fate of human beings on earth.

If everybody better understood how scientific explanation works, it might help to settle these arguments rationally over the validity or type of various explanations and theories (explanations and theories are much the same thing).  Hempel provides criteria by which one might assess an explanation; one could ask whether an explanation had a scientific character or not or whether it was really an explanation at all versus a different ideational product of the mind.

I was introduced to Hempel and also Hans Reichenbach while researching the scientific validity of psychoanalysis, about which endless debates rage and roar over whether it's science or "pseudo-science."  Like Reichenbach, Hempel suggests that knowledge is generalization from repeated instances (Francis Bacon's "induction by enumeration") and that explanation seeks to define specific observed relationships as instances of general relationships established in principle.  Hempel says of psychology, "[W]hile frequently the regularities invoked cannot be stated with the same generality and precision as in physics or chemistry, it is clear at least that the general character of those explanations conforms to our earlier characterization."   He makes a similar argument regarding the study of history, asserting that good historians explain historical events on the scientific deductive-nomological model, but of necessity with less than mathematical precision.  To denote the somewhat lesser degree of precision, he calls historical explanation an "explanation sketch," which is "scientifically acceptable" since further research can confirm or disconfirm it.  Says Hempel, "Explanation sketches are common also outside of history; many explanations in psychoanalysis, for instance, illustrate this point."  So ... stick that in your Popper and Karl it.  With Carl Hempel on your side, you too can win arguments staged in Goodreads reviews of books that are out of print and unrated.  But at least you yourself will know.