Friday, January 30, 2009

interesting interview with Gwen Ifill

Gwen Ifill talks about her book on Obama on Minnesota Public Radio:

Descartes and Plato

In re-reading Descartes’ Meditation Two, I was struck again by how similar he is to Plato. The famous passage about the wax is a nice place where Descartes plays his Platonic hand.

Plato famously makes a distinction between the realm of the sensible (Becoming) and the intelligible (Being). The sensible realm is the one whose general determinable attribute is alteration. The intelligible realm is the one whose particular determinate attribute is an utter, mystical sameness. This latter realm is where Plato places Form (contentious view: not Forms), and this realm can only be accessed by a pure intellection that is supposed to transcend perceptions of the sensible alterations in the realm of Becoming.

Cue Descartes over a millennium later as he famously ruminates on the piece of wax...
“I now know that even bodies are not strictly perceived by the senses or the faculty of imagination but by the intellect alone, and that this perception derives not from their being touched or seen but from their being understood; and in view of this I know plainly that I can achieve an easier and more evident perception of my own mind than of anything else.” (Meditation Two)
According to Descartes, even though the sensible qualities of the wax may change when I heat it, I still judge that the same wax remains through all the alterations. My distinct conception of the wax as an enduring material substance is not based on its changeable sensible qualities.

Rational reflection moves me to judge that the wax as a material body is “merely something extended, flexible and changeable.” (Meditation Two)

Since the wax is potentially infinitely flexible and changeable, my adequate conception of the wax could not be a function of my sensory imagination but rather of my rational understanding.

It’s obvious that Descartes is shopping for a general definition that is aimed to be “essence-tracking” with respect to not only the wax but of material substance as such. He’s looking for the Form.

This is his way of articulating the Socratic/Platonic search for answers to the “What is X?” question (e.g., What is dikaiosune? What is arĂȘte? etc.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Buying Less

It's January, 2009, and the USA is in one of the worst recessions anyone can remember. Comparisons are made to the dot-com crash of the early 2000s, the awfulness of the early 1980s, and all the way back to the Great Depression itself in the 1930s.

This all leads to my question for the philosophers: Should you intentionally spend less money in a recession?

Of course, if you've lost your job or some of your income, you'll have to make tough choices. But I'm imagining a person who hasn't had their income affected at all. (Presumably their savings have dwindled, but let's say they don't live off that savings and can reasonably expect to wait out the recession before they plan to retire or otherwise draw on their savings. Let's also assume that have a high degree of job security.) If you are making exactly as much money as you were last year, why should you spend any less? Why should the fact that other people are buying fewer things lead you to buy fewer things?

There's one easy way to spend less without making any sacrifices. As retailers work to move their merchandise, they're having greater sales than past years. So if you buy a sweater for $40 that would have been $50 a year ago, you are spending less. So that's easy to do. But I take it that people have stopped buying sweaters (or cars or most non-necessities). But is this rational? If you are making just as much money as you were before, why would you spend less now? Perhaps you are a super-saver and think this is a good time to invest, but I don't think that's why most people are holding onto their money.

Besides the usual reasons to save money and be thrifty that apply at all times, and the ways one can easily spend less, and the greater need to be generous, should you buy less in a recession?

Monday, January 26, 2009

Locke and the idea of the void

In the seventeenth century, the two dominant forms of mechanistic philosophy were Cartesianism and corpuscularianism. The former denied the possibility and hence existence of the void, and the latter affirmed the existence of the void, since matter was ultimately discrete.

Locke, being much in favor of corpuscularianism over Cartesianism (though withholding belief about whether corpuscularianism delivers scientia about natural bodies), surely must have wondered how it is that one can have an idea of a void.

I’ve wondered whether this passage from the Essay could have been deployed by Locke to explain the idea of a void.

“If it were the design of my present undertaking to enquire into the natural causes and manner of perception, I should offer this as a reason why a privative cause might, in some cases at least, produce a positive idea, viz. that all sensation being produced in us only by different degrees and modes of motion in our animal spirits, variously agitated by external objects, the abatement of any former motion must as necessarily produce a new sensation, as the variation or increase of it; and so introduce a new idea, which depends only on a different motion of the animal spirits in that organ (II.viii.4).”