Tuesday, January 3, 2012

2012. My Agenda. My 2012 Agenda.

Take the GRE and apply to graduate school!

Once 2011 was gone I knew that I was ready to fling myself forward into this new year. I'm feeling excited. I'm ready to do it! At least I think I'm ready for it.

I'm becoming more and more comfortable with the idea of applying primarily to history programs with the intention pursuing military history.

I told someone the other day of my plan to get a history degree and eventually do some kind of philosophy. I still believe that is my plan. I still don't know if I can pull that off. But I do think that there is a lot for me to do in that line of thinking. I can see ways that military history would take me into my deepest philosophical interests.

So what is it that I want to accomplish philosophically by pursuing military history?

I don't quite know. So let me spitball some things really quick for you. These are my hunches.

At this point, R.G. Collingwood is the thinker I feel most committed to. I admire his plain-spoken style, the breadth of his interests, his faith in the use of reason, and his hope that civilization could learn to engage in "the self-conscious creation of its own historical life." There is a lot of hope in Collingwood. A lot of love. A lot of passion for thinking. He is right at the intersection of all the disciplines I want to think about: philosophy of mind, history, economics and Marxism, aesthetics, politics, education. He wore many hats, and I like that.

But there are two major convictions that are essential to Collingwood's mature work: historical knowledge is the only form of knowledge, and history and philosophy need to be synthesized into a new form of knowledge.

These are the central claims that I need to extrapolate out of Collingwood. The former is quite clear. In The Idea Of History Collingwood unequivocally asserts that there is no knowledge beyond historical knowledge: "Without some knowledge of himself, his knowledge of other things is imperfect: for to know something without knowing that one knows it is only a half-knowing, and to know that one knows is to know oneself." This type of self-knowledge, knowledge of "mind itself" can only be attained "by the methods of history" (209). Why is this the case? I won't go into this right now. But I will refer you to a wonderful essay by Michel Foucault titled 'What Is Enlightenment?',  and to a book by Ian Hacking called Historical Ontology. The perspective that emerges from those two writings is one that must be applied to Collingwood, is already implied (if not explicitly asserted) in Collingwood's work.

And as for this second claim, that history and philosophy must be synthesized into a new discipline. This is something that will take me a lot of work. Thankfully, Collingwood already took huge steps. He was preparing to "expound in detail his theory of history as well as to clear up the problems of method and to show how what have hitherto been regarded as philosophy and history might now be synthesized in a new study transcending and incorporating both" (TNL, xxi). Indeed, David Boucher believes TNL is one of such studies. Foucault, too, made some big steps in that process. I know I'll need help from a whole range of folks. Definitely people like DeLanda, Zizek, Deleuze, Hacking, Oksalla, Carr, so on. But I am fascinated by this synthesis of history and philosophy.

Those questions aside, I want to ask, What does the Collingwoodian project culminate in? Remember we are dealing with an author who never produced what he considered an authoritative statement of his thought. We have to interrogate his claims about the importance of historical knowledge, about the relationship between history and philosophy. And what I want to know the most, what is political in these claims?

Because The Idea Of History has political notes at times. He says certain things about historical thinking and progress, about revolutionaries needing to be historians. But the real political implications of his historical philosophy were not yet worked out.

Which is why The New Leviathan is such an interesting book. It is Collingwood's attempt to understand what modes of thinking had led Europe into World War II. He thus begins the book by using both historical and philosophical references to identify the general characteristics of the modern European mind. After this historical diagnosis, Collingwood develops his definition of civilization, which he defines as a process of instilling in the youth the habit of using dialectical thinking to reduce the amount of force in relationship. By dialectical thinking Collingwood means attempting at all times to turn instances of non-agreement into agreement. For the dialectical thinker there are no disagreements, only non-agreement. Disagreement is a quality of eristical thinking and is not in the nature of civility.

I'm beginning to grasp what is going on in TNL and I'm finding it quite compelling. What it is really about is the necessity of educating the children to become functioning members of a civilization and not just a community or society. Collingwood's definition of civilization is a simple but essential ideal to strive for.

Collingwood obviously would not have stopped thinking about history throughout the writing of TNL. In fact, TNL itself contains numerous historical references and original histories of European thought. So how does all of his historical thinking tie into TNL? Collingwood is also tough because he rarely references his own work, and if so, only in passing. So I feel like I really need to push at him and ask about the relationship between TNL and his other work.

This is really the thing I'm trying to ask in the larger writing project I'm still working on. I am preparing to write about the historical element of his thought. In particular, the political elements in his historical work. In particular, I want to know how his claim that historical thinking is always 'the re-enactment of past thought'. Collingwood's notion of the re-enactment of thought is a precursor to modern simulation theory of mind.

Theory of mind assumes that human beings are essentially minded creatures. We are not just automatons or a mere natural process, we live in a social world where people think, people makes decisions, people have minds. Our minds, however, are isolated: we never have direct access to any mind other than our own. So how do we understand each other's minds? Simulation theory argues that we understand another person by simulating their thoughts in our own mind, by putting ourselves in their shoes. Empathy and extended forms of imaginative empathy are the primary means by which we understand another mind. There mind, however, draws on other faculties to understand others. For example, we can rely on linguistic categorization, mental modeling, of tacit theoretical inference. In short, sure, we can empathize with people, but we can also write them off by categorizing (theorizing) them into something insignificant.

Collingwood's notion of re-enactment is remarkably similar to simulation theory. He, too, argues that knowledge of mind can only be attained by rethinking the thoughts of another person. We don't truly understand someone's thoughts unless we rethink, re-enact, simulate their thoughts for ourselves.

So what could potentially be political about this epistemological claim about minds? Well, recently I wrote about 'the historical collision of thought'. I don't know if I like that writing. It was fun. But I feel like I'm in the same position with this question. I asked myself at the end of that writing what the political implications of something like this are. Ah, and now I know what to say. Clausewitz.

Carl von Clausewitz is someone who can very much help me think about how Collingwood's historical thought, and in particular the notion of re-enactment, might be politically relevant. Clausewitz leads me to believe that the politics of Collingwood's historical thought would ultimately be pedagogical. That is to say that Collingwood's thought would best be used to educate a ruling elite. His thought would possess some relevance in higher political education. Let me tell you a little bit about Clausewitz so that this makes sense.

Clausewitz's problem (at the beginning of the nineteenth century) was how to educate the Prussian political elite so as to make them more intuitively decisive. Clausewitz believed that political thinkers had to make decisions intuitively, that the situations they were dealing with far too complex to be handled with logic. He claimed that "Rapid and correct appraisal [of political situations] clearly calls for the intuition of a genius."  He agreed with Napoleon's claim that "Newton himself would quail before the algebraic problems [political decision] could pose" (On War, 708). The task, then, is to improve a person's ability to make quick decisions in the face of uncertainty and danger. In short, to cultivate an attitude of political confidence and intuition.

Clausewitz also believed that intuition could only be improved through experience. But finding experience in war is very difficult. You might die, wars don't happen that often, getting experience with them is just tough. Clausewitz, however, believes that there is an alternative way of gaining experience with decision making in war: historical study. Because Clausewitz thought to study history deeply meant to enter the mind of a past decision maker, explore their potential thought processes, to imagine alternative courses of action, to contemplate as fully as possible the dilemma's that a past decision maker was grappling with. Some have said that Clausewitz is really talking about a process like Collingwood's re-enactment.

So this is where we can so a potential political benefit in Collingwood's notion of re-enactment. Furthermore, TNL culminates in the idea that civilization is a process of educating the ruling elite and the citizenry so that they can engage in the dialectical process that civilization is. Civilization perpetuates itself through education. But Collingwood never talks about how re-enactment might be a pedagogical tool for the ruling elite. Wouldn't he have thought that the ruling elite would be enrich by historical study? That their minds, too, could be expanded by the process of re-enacting past thoughts? He hints at this idea when he says that a thinker from the past can provide us with "a permanent addition to political ideas" (TIOH, 218). In other words, exposure to historical ideas will prompt questions in our minds about the present that may have not arisen otherwise. Historical knowledge would give us a certain attitude towards the present.

And it is really the definition of this attitude that I am after. I'm trying to elaborate a way of living, an approach to language and people, an attitude of empathy and compassion. But somehow I want this attitude to be taught to political and military elites. I'm not alone in this. I know of a writer who says that military education at its best is analogous to both aesthetic and zen pedagogy.

This is the precise intersection at which I am working. Aesthetics, history, politics and war, zen (sloppily), and education. All such vague lines of thinking. I've read more than one book about all those things. Some much more than that. But I don't feel up to the task of really feeling set about these things.

I've developed certain ideas about this attitude, like the idea of 'metaphysical mindfulness'. But that phrase is cumbersome and relies on a very precise definition of metaphysics, namely, the one Collingwood puts forth in his Essay On Metaphysics. So I need a better term. I've also worked on this idea of the aesthetics of existence. That is the current project. To conceptualize this attitude as essentially aesthetic, and to use zen as an analogous concept. But I'm not sure exactly how to do that. All I can say for now is that I'm on some kind of project to understand how to cultivate the habit of behaving civilly to everyone. How to get in a position to teach people to cultivate the habits necessary to really strive for civilization in the Collingwoodian sense of the term. How to define and embody a certain attitude towards existence and language that is simultaneously aesthetic and mindful. How to embrace the past and the present and attain a historical-philosophical ethos.

My agenda for this year is to continue to work hard on these ideas. To complete the AZI project. And to apply to graduate school. And a bunch of other fun stuff, duh! But I intend to move forward with being serious about thinking and trying to do it for a living.

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