Arendt on thinking and speaking

Huzeyfe asked:

I came across this in Hannah Arendt’s book: Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy:

“Thinking, as Kant agreed with Plato, is the silent dialogue of myself with myself, and that thinking is a ‘solitary business’ (as Hegel once remarked) is one of the few things on which all thinkers were agreed. Also, it is of course by no means true that you need or can even hear the company of others when you happen to be busy thinking; yet, unless you can somehow communicate and expose to the test of others, either orally or in writing, whatever you may have found out when you were alone, this faculty exerted in solitude will disappear.”

I could not quite understand what is signaled in the last sentence. What does “this faculty exerted in solitude will disappear”? Can you elaborate? Also, can you add your thoughts on this thinking?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Something might have got lost in translation. Try this instead:

“When you are deep in thought, you might hardly take notice of anyone in your company; you might ignore them when they speak, perhaps not even hearing them. On the other hand, if you cannot communicate your solitary thoughts to them, either in speech or in writing, and thereby give others the opportunity to weigh them up, the exertion of your faculties in those moments of solitude will vanish when you are finished, as if it never happened.”

I think the plain meaning of this passage is that thinking is a solitary activity; two people thinking are also solitary, even sitting side by side, each with their own thoughts. But the thinking faculty is helpless in bringing thoughts “into the world”, sooner or later you must speak. Then they will not vanish without a trace; they will be considered by others. Then they will either make their way or be sidelined. But communication is the key for any thoughts that do not wish to be soliloquistic.

Does a hidden object exist?

Xavier asked:

I’m trying to explain to my friends about things existing. I gave them this question: if you place a pencil in an opaque box and close the box, does the pencil exist? They say yes and I ask how do they know and why. All they come up with is “because I put the pencil in there”. I’m having a tough time explaining why the pencil ceases to exist once you close the box.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I’m not surprised that you’re having a “tough time”. You’ve done nothing other than hide the object. Meanwhile everyone of your interlocutors is in a position to demonstrate that your assertion of non-existence is nonsense.

All I can say by way of slight remedy is this: That someone coming into the room later and seeing the box, would not know there is a pencil in it. But again this says nothing about existence or non-existence. I think you’ve muddled up a dictum you might have read somewhere, that certifying existence is a privilege of living creatures. This has no relevance to your context, and especially so when plain concealment is your only argument. In short, you have to do better than this!

Where do my words come from?

Gary asked:

For a while now I can’t work out where, when I’m speaking out loud, the words come from; it seems like magic. The words come out without my knowing where they originate. They seem to emerge out of nowhere, even when I’m having a normal conversation.

When I want to think, I think in English (my only language), and I can comprehend what I’m saying to myself (obviously?). I’ve successfully ‘gagged’ my internal voice and when I do so, I can’t think. I can see pictures and have feelings, but no more. Perhaps like meditation? This is worrying me a little because it feels that ‘I’ am not in control – something is living my life for me and ‘I’ am merely an observer. I’m sure I’m not mad – can you enlighten me?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

You are quite right in sensing that you are “not in control”, but the other part (something is living my life) does not follow. Your brain is still your brain-the core of your persona. You need to understand that this organ has to work at speeds which are unimaginable to us and therefore simply inaccessible to consciousness.

But the answer to your question of “Where do the words come from?” is relatively simple. Learning to speak involves amassing words, phrases, adages, synonyms, slang and their semantics in memory, together with pronunciation, idioms, syntax, grammar. This is your resource. It is activated when you speak, your thoughts passing through the speech cortex into the appropriate motor cortices (throat, tongue, lips, jaws, sometimes nose too). But the same rules apply here, as with other faculties of the brain. All this happens so fast that “you” are barely conscious of either thinking or speaking, which is one reason why we often say things we didn’t mean or grab the wrong words. – You should ask yourself how much thinking you do during a rapid-fire debate or argument. Mostly minimal, sometimes none at all. The secret, if I may call it that, lies with your intentions: as long as they are translatable into speech, your cortices will do that work for you.

The crux of this matter is, accordingly, your intentions. The brain and its faculties exist to facilitate them. The speed at which they operate does not exclude you from control or your sense of selfhood. To grasp this, consider anaesthetised people. Their body and brain are still alive and functioning, but for some time they cannot exert their intentionality.

So you’ll also find an answer here to the endless debate about whether we think in or with words. My answer is “no”, because it’s possible only in circumstances of quiet and deliberate concentration. This is the slow train to the goal of finding a good or the best articulation of what you wish to express, which you can then memorise or write down. It is obviously impossible in any animated or excited environment, such as mentioned above. The redeeming factor is that a rich verbal resource makes it easier for the relevant cortices to extract the most suitable means of expression for your verbal intentions.

In sum: “You”, as a person, are always in the driver’s seat. This does not necessarily entail consciousness-no more than you are conscious of the activity of kidneys, liver, pancreas etc. They purr along all by themselves, and only rise into consciousness when something goes wrong. Likewise your brain does all the hard slog of finding the words and phrases you wish to speak in a matter of microseconds, that otherwise you would have no hope of dredging up from your verbal memory.

The real mystery is, of course, caught by the word ‘intention’. We still don’t know what it is, how it works, nor how many of our body processes are entangled in it. So I would risk a variant on Kant’s “Unity of apperceptions” for the proposition that a person is the “Unity of intentional faculties”. Hope this goes some way to answering your question.

Is metaphysics still a valid philosophy?

Finnegan asked:

What is metaphysics for a contemporary philosopher? Is there agreement that it is still considered a valid field of inquiry within contemporary philosophy?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

With all due respects to prevailing opinions on metaphysics, I’m going to be so brash as to say that most post-Aristotelian metaphysics is not metaphysics at all, but merely a philosophical veneer for theology, mysticism, spiritualism and other pursuits of this ilk. Under those terms it is easy to agree with anyone who calls it a waste of time (starting, incidentally, with Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan).

Let us therefore consider the meaning of the word! What is meta and what is physics, and how come they were compounded?

Well now: We all know what physics is, i.e. study of the physical world with a view to framing theories of “What is?”. Hence matter, energy, thermodynamics etc., some of which is amenable to being turned into technology. No issues.

What about “meta”? It means “with”, “after”, “around”, “belonging to” in some ways. Take note now: as combined, these words spell out that metaphysics is something that is in some way copulated with physics, but is not physics in itself.

So much for meaning. I think you (or anyone) would now have difficulty puzzling out where gods and angels, ghosts and witches fit in! Even for those believe(d) in them, they are exactly the opposite of what physics is concerned with.

But then, what is “meta”-physics really?

Answer: They are items that belong to physics, but are not existents. Such as: Cause, beginning, end, force, fundamental principle, element, necessity, contingency, substance, being, identity, difference, potential, quality, relation, limit etc etc. All these can be found in Aristotle’s “Philosophical Lexicon”, that is part of his book on Metaphysics. Today, this kind of research is called “Theoretical Physics”; but as you can see, it is metaphysics – the real metaphysics.

The philosophical discipline which goes under the same name is simply a hangover from the scholastic era when everyone, including theologians, firmly believed in the actual existence of spirit beings of all kinds; they believed moreover that earthly existence is not real and that physical existents were mere phenomena. Yet it is on these terms that the word “metaphysics” is still misconstrued, although for philosophers, even academics, there was certainly no warrant to persist with it for at least the last 200 years.

After this explanation, you might usefully approach your question from a different angle. Metaphysics is neither theology nor mysticism; therefore the pseudo-metaphysics targeted by your question has no place in modern philosophy. But the genuine article still has relevance, because its agenda is wider than theoretical physics alone; and you would not wish to dismiss the idea that Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Adorno, even Whitehead still made significant contributions to it. They are indeed heirs of the great metaphysical systems of the 19th century (Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer et al.), which finally linked up again with the authentic metaphysics of the men from Thales to Aristotle, and Descartes to Leibniz.

My hope is, that you may now feel an urge to correct your inadvertent misuse of a philosophical nomenclature and seriously involve yourself with some of the finest and most far-reaching accomplishments of the human mind in history, to which the title ‘metaphysics’ is attached with full justice.

Leibniz on why there is something rather than nothing

Minnie asked:

Why is there something instead of nothing? Is this a profound question or is it as Richard Dawkins maintains a “senseless question”?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I’m not surprised that a scientific dogmatist would wave off a truly profound issue like this, and Dawkins is by no means the first. When Leibniz put the question up, he was of course committed to putting God in the picture — why did God create an imperfect world instead of just enjoying his own perfection? And his answer (leaning on a prior formulation by the little-known early scholastic thinker John Scotus Erigena) was this: A single existent in the universe would not know that it exists, because it has nothing to compare existence with non-existence! And so Leibniz’s answer was considerably more sophisticated than our own pretty infantile supposition of a ‘big bang’: God created a kind of ‘cosmic dust’ as an analogue of himself, which we might conceive of as fundamental particles, each a mirror of the universe from its unique perspective. This can be readily translated into modern diction, as these particles comprise the underlying texture of the universe in his as well as our cosmological theories.

Leibniz called these particles ‘monads’; but the crucial difference to our present conceptions is, that his monads possess the potential, each in varying degrees, of animate and inanimate existence; and it is the manner of their congregation that results in the furniture of the world — predominantly inert monads comprising physics matter; predominantly active monads comprising the animate partition. Take note that this pathway is closed to Big Bang theorists!

Now you might cry out, “but this is metaphysics, not science!” Not so fast! Because you must not assume that any theory that happens to be the current paradigm, reigns in uncontested splendour throughout the scientific establishment.

Take Prigogine’s suggestion that in an otherwise empty universe, there must be a residual electric potential imbued with positive and negative charge from which matter can precipitate, as otherwise nothing will ever come into existence. Any now any such precipitate changes the constitution of this charged field and results in the potentiation of an accelerating cascade of further precipitations.

Although this thesis was offered by a scientist (indeed a double Nobelist), it is also pure metaphysics. But we cannot get around it; metaphysics is our only speculative methodology if we wish to find logically tight and scientifically sound theses on origins. I hope you can see from my description that Leibniz and Prigogine are not talking past each other, but propound much the same idea. For although Leibniz pays constant lip service to the theological presuppositions in his era, he occasionally lifted the lid on his own thoughts in private communications, as in this case in a letter to Johann Bernoulli, where he said: “God did not create the world — he created monads, and the monads created the world.”

This is not the place for me to go deeper into these conundrums. But a word is indispensable on why this is an issue of the utmost profundity to minds attuned to philosophy. Consider that the question refers to the fact that without life in the universe — especially intelligent life — there would be no-one to testify to its existence. Virtually all other philosophical questions, and all scientific questions as well, hinge on it. The existence of the universe is predicated a priori on there being life, as in a universe without this potential it would be indifferent whether it exists or not. So Leibniz’s question is a direct challenge to the mindless presupposition “here it is, basta!” and further to the asinine assumption that life is nothing more than a chance configuration of molecular products which we just happen to incapable of explaining in scientific terms. But also, as we saw, to the naive belief that a God may be said to exist without humans to posit such a Being as a possibility and then to cast doubt upon it.

To my mind, Leibniz holds an advantage in these stakes. His monadic cosmos unfurls with the potential for life as a residual capacity. He answers the second prong of the “existential question” by providing a pathway for the evolution of agency, intentionality, perception, awareness, intelligence etc., which tends to be ignored or confused by committed material monists like Dawkins. Leibniz knew nothing of evolution, of course; but as it turns out, it is the most exquisite argument in his favour that only intentional agents possess the wherewithal to legitimise the question under consideration here.


Was Fichte a solipsist?

Lucy asked:

I was reading about the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte. I don’t know if I just read it wrong but to be he comes across as someone who agrees with solipsism. What is your opinion?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

If you don’t supply a source of your reading, I can’t judge whether you or your source is in error. In fact, Fichte is the opposite of a solipsist; he tries to explain what it takes to furnish a mind with knowledge through experience. This can sound like a kind of solipsism to a careless reader, as he insists (rightly of course) that the contents of my mind cannot be the same as yours. If you fly over a mountain, you will naturally have a different perception of it than someone who climbs it from the bottom up. That’s the upshot of his take on individuality, which is what his philosophy seeks to establish. Even so, the sum of many such different perspectives can (and usually will) result in a consensus of opinion; although by the same token each one of us also has private experiences which we do not share.

That’s the nutshell response to your nutshell question. Of course, Fichte’s philosophy goes much deeper; but that’s for you to discover.

Looking for a philosophical name for my chess project

Amer asked:

I’ve been searching through philosophy and history to answer this question, but I am not very knowledgeable on this subject. I have a chess company I am about to open, the goal of this company in general is to provide events, tournaments, and school, for everything related to chess…

Is there any person in history or a story in philosophy that talks about a place where its a perfect place for what ever specific type of people, a place where when you enter, you become complete. Even a dream of a philosopher, mythology, or person in history that they have written or spoken about. I am also ok with a word that holds the significance of what I am talking about. A unique word that holds meaning to a place of pure focus, intelligence, happiness. I don’t want a long quote or phrase unless it includes a specific name in it. Or if its a phrase or quote, it is suppose to be a specific significant person or group of people talking about that place.

If there isn’t anything like that, then a historical person or mythical person who represents an ordinary being but when he acts on a specific thing for e.g. when he is on the battle field or other activity, he/she shows his/her inner genius and intelligence… Thanks for your patience.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

One of the great masters of the past, Siegbert Tarrasch, wrote: “Chess, like love, like music, has the power to make a man happy.”

A great line that might serve you at least as a motto, since it ties love and chess together as possible modes of deep experience.

The goddess of chess is Caissa, as I’m sure you know. The Greek name for heaven was Elysium. Hence or “Elysium Caissa” might suit you?