An Open Letter to the University of Chicago Philosophy Department, Re: “Thinking And Being: A Conference With Irad Kimhi.”

A guest authored edgy essay by Matthew Andersson

All theory, my friend, is grey

But green life’s golden tree.(Faust I)

If there were a verb meaning ‘to believe falsely,’ it would not have a meaningful first person present indicative. (L. Wittgenstein)

I was thinking, which is something a man should not do. (Dean Jagger as Colonel Stovall, in “Twelve O’Clock High,” Twentieth Century Fox, 1949)

Dear University of Chicago Philosophy Department:

I was able to attend some of your public conference, along with my daughter, a college undergrad, and I appreciated the opportunity. There are a thousand philosophy books one could read, but you held a conference about this one, and gave it some cachet, as an evidently innovative development even for general readers. So, I read Irad’s book and enjoyed it. Below are some very brief first impressions (more of the book, rather than the conference per se,which is a separate issue; and more accurately, some things the book got me thinking about, versus a “review” proper, which is not my domain, and in any case, first impressions have their own importance). The “fast feedback” is in the spirit of (de) constructive criticism, as an American educated general reader. This may be helpful, and of interest, at least in the spirit of “public philosophy” and book marketing data. (Irad doesn’t seem to advertise a public e-address, so perhaps you may wish to forward this to him.)

I organize this feedback into five “buckets:” 1. General impression; 2. The Greek affinity; 3. Logic; 4. Quietism; 5. Where next? Like all books, there is a mix of good, bad, and indifferent.

1. General impressions: I found the book nicely gated, or efficiently organized, to read initially in one evening, with an inviting, thoughtful tone. As an example of “history of philosophy,” it was instructive for someone who doesn’t read philosophy every day, and a pleasure to see references and discussion of some central themes in philosophy. There are helpful footnotes and good further-reading enticements. It isn’t a “finger on every word” kind of argument, at least to my simple mind, but I would, though, say that the topic may be a bit esoteric if one has not studied basic logic, or perused the pre-Socratic (or Heidegger) and if one has no bearings in the quietism concept generally. It strikes me as an enjoyable workout for undergrads or for your MA (PhD) students where Irad is also good at inviting conversation (that is a skill not in great abundance in colleges). In that regard he and his book are an efficient polemic. He is rather centered in Hegel, it seems to me, and even some of his more important pronouncements seem paraphrases. An example is the internal/external reference taken from Hegel’s PoS (discussed in Forster’s German Philosophy of Language): “To talk of the unity of a subject and object, of finite and infinite, of being and thought, etc, is inept, since subject and object, etc, signify what they are outside of their unity” (Forster’s p. 174, note 79). A simple tautology evidently. T&B is otherwise more a student’s, than a general reader’s, handbook of course, but I don’t otherwise see how, or why, it draws particular interest from your colleagues, except they must be thinking of such topics in a rather narrow intellectual (or experiential, or institutional) channel. It doesn’t generate the contentions or challenges per se that you advertise, at least for me, for some reasons below. The argument, I think, has been straw-manned before by many writers — because it’s a deeply interesting topic — with some writers outside philosophy (your colleague Rödl has also written somewhat the same book but with a charming Teutonic autocracy). T&B, for current US academic traditions, may be considered divergent from current orthodoxy, but it doesn’t appear to counter Analytic philosophy, nor “breaks with tradition” as you advertise (at least, not with anything in applied considerations, in my experience) except perhaps as a mild Coriolis effect acting on professional academic philosophical inertia. I think that is a major factor in its reception.

2. The Greek affinity: Parmenides is squarely in the safe space of classics, but the whole “pre-Socratic” construct may be a bit oversold, in my view. One way to have some context and comparison, I think, is Glenn Most’s excellent paper “Heidegger’s Greeks.” But in the context of the more evidently “primordial” Being that Heidegger–and evidently Kimhi–seeks, there are perhaps fuller examples, and more thoroughly instructive ones from antiquity, than Parmenides and his poem (which seems for some an incantation). Going back to origins is seductive, but as you know, can be misleading. There are often no origins. I would otherwise have used someone like Paracelsus perhaps (or even Democritus). Why? There is much more documentation and much more secondary, exploratory treatment for general readers at least. A fine, highly relevant professional one, for example, is in Jung’s Collected Works (13). Moreover, some of Kimhi’s larger thematic concepts (or at least ones he seems to invoke) concerning unity, are treated with deep factual support and creativity by Jung, and also by reference to his “tertium,” which I think Kimhi is trying intuitively to get at, but still through the conventions of professional academic philosophy proper (or oblique language indulgences such as the syncategorema, which is somewhat awkward, has to be effectively “decoded” throughout his book, and is rather distracting. But it is a good example of what some call “language traps”). In that regard, it never quite gets at the unity issue with much substance, but then again I don’t think that is his aim. Otherwise, classical Kantian and post-Kantian German philosophy invite dualism, and maybe that is part of Irad’s linguistic battle.

3. Logic: Traditional symbolism may not explain enough. The larger problem he creates–regress–is easily solved by (as he does many things) Robert Hanna’s invoking essentially non-conceptual intuition (and by what I would also call sensing) in his recent review of Kimhi’s book. Otherwise I don’t think general readers get much out of it, and may be asked to go down an interesting but ultimately frustrating treatment. Perhaps more development would be helpful in this part of the book; that is, an inclusion of one or more possible solutions, which would help readers who can’t draw on a larger knowledge of philosophical theories, such as Kant for example. I think in this regard, the book is acting as an “introduction,” really, and the good news is that there is a several volume follow-on opportunity.

So moving on and somewhat related: I don’t think IK’s exercise overall really challenges other constructs from other philosophers, even Frege. Part of that belief (or bias) is because “Analytic” philosophy more broadly, is not really well understood within (as opposed to without) philosophy, or at least not conveyed with sufficient context: it is a logical result of the necessary “contra naturam” splitting by empiricism which at some point simply gets reintegrated with “Continental” perspective (well, at least can be rather easily and naturally). So Irad may be “swinging after the bell.” Each asks different questions; that is the only difference (explored smartly and in my mind settled by Schacht in Hegel and After in 1975). There are other complications, though. See George Reich’s excellent UC PhD thesis/book, (OUP, 2005) “How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science: To the Icy Slopes of Logic” and the Unity of Science issue. But perhaps fundamentally, Kimhi’s somewhat tortured linguistic and logic exercise, is a perfect example of what Popper warned against: philosophy’s roots decay if it loses its bearings in actual problems outside philosophy proper. So, what problem is Kimhi trying to solve? I’m not sure that he says. If it’s the problem of the nature of logic per se, the problem might be redefined, and greatly expanded. As it is, it seems to me strictly limited to an exploration of rules. One last example that may be helpful if I may: in engineering and machine operation, say, the act of commanding a jet in a super-critical swept-wing aircraft moving at Mach .8, at 45,000 feet, and then descending at 2,000 feet per minute with a crossing restriction of 10,000 feet in 20 miles, with conflicting airspeed indications; a split in engine pressure ratios, a discrepancy in air traffic instructions and avionics commands, contradictory aural data from the non-flying pilot, and a convective storm at 12 o’clock with Level 5 turbulence.

My point? Compared to King’s College on fire, which is ‘only’ an analogue problem, many man-machine or man-environment examples are multi-dimensional, often with ambiguous or conflicting information, and with lethal consequences (and hence neurologically complicated) and yet, get solved, or resolved intellectually, and with a proof. One applied aerospace term is called “multi-tasking” which is sort of (v. sort of) a “Kantian” exercise in intuition, that allows the mind to host and sense several moving parameters at the same time (some strictly physical, some parametric, others are operationally necessary, strategic imaginaries in a time complex — that is, “thinking ahead.” How does one think both in current space and time, and concurrently, project a forward plot in 3-dimensional space/time, including the intuitive calculation in trigonometry and calculus?). Here, conscious concentration may be focused on only one task per se–leaving aside cases of split attention for the moment. But in cases of single-minded attention, where is the rest of the “mind?” It is sensing. In fact, the mind is made just for such complex problems that machines — yet, or even in principle — can’t solve. This fact may also have great weight in setting the boundaries of logic and thinking, e.g., as per Frege, who was arguably correct about such matters in particular formalization-friendly contexts not involving set theory as he mistakenly understood it. Like the word “leadership” in a business context, thinking is specific. Complex, conflicting, seemingly unresolvable dualities also exist by definition in business, but that is where logic often breaks down, and needs an “escape” function in either heuristic rules (properly understood) or intuition (built on pre-reflective experiences).

4. Quietism: it is too bad he spends only a page or so on this. It is a very elegant invocation. But if that is the source or path of/to some kind of (apparently undefined) unity, it is way too much of a cop-out intellectually. That is why I would refer readers to 2, above. Levy-Bruhl’s “participation mystique” seems to have some relevance here as well, as a mental state implied by the author. In that regard, Kimhi’s argument seems, somewhat, to be aiming at primitivism, which may help explain the pre-Socratic reference. This is a big topic. I respectfully move on.

5. Where next? So, I think Irad is setting the stage for “Hal” (from Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey) to re-enter our lives in AI, where thinking and being go “supercritical.” Seriously though, there is a fascinating AI/robotics implication, if one is motivated with sufficient creativity. That is among the reasons I advocate for university philosophy departments to branch out to science, engineering and business. It’s coming one way or another. Otherwise as Nietzsche smartly observed, philosophy lost its way when happiness became a ligature to the arteries of science (ATH).

So (drumroll): I give Irad’s book a solid 3.1415926 stars (out of 5) for a concise evening read that points several great directions for follow up, with a very instructive example of academic philosophizing (like measuring a circle, the circumference always brings you back to the origin). It is otherwise in my humble non-expert view, a fine MA thesis. If his name were Jack Smith however, I don’t believe UChicago Philosophy, knowing its professional academic predilections, would be quite as promotional, perhaps. In any case, Robert Hanna’s critique of T&B is otherwise the go-to philosophical and logical review of T&B.

One last recommendation: If IK took his book to the high school seniors (perhaps the best audience for any writer) that feed UChicago’s College, say, Hinsdale or New Trier, what would he tell them as far as its utility? Why does it matter? What could it mean to them?

Again, these are just my particular first impressions as a general reader who does not live in professional academic philosophy. I appreciate that there are many complexities and nuances to Kimhi’s main argument and in the topics surrounding it, but I hope otherwise that this brief feedback provides some helpful “market data” (as in: perhaps I’m the wrong audience!). Thank you for an enjoyable read. And keep up the good work.

With regards and appreciation,

Matt Andersson, MBA, University of Chicago, AB, University of Texas at Austin

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Mr Nemo

Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.