Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Three days in Prague devoted to philosophy – an invitation

In September 4 to 6 I intend to have 'Three days in Prague devoted to philosophy'. On Friday September 4 I shall present to my audience (if there is any) ‘Self-knowledge as an imperative’ (the text is on my website, on Saturday ‘Kantian subjectivity of space and time’ (see 'Back to Kant', May 31, 'Miklejohn's translation of Kant's Critique', June 1, 'Plato's Forms and Kant's Apriori', June 3, 'Kant and the subconscious', June 9,'Kant and self-knowledge', June 11, 'The Kantian subjectivity of space and time', June 14, and ‘Kant’s space contrasted with Aristotle’s space’, July 4 on my blog), on Sunday ‘Plato’s Parmenides in the light of Aristotle’s criticism of the theory of Forms’ (see 'A note on the 3rd book of Aristotle's Metaphysics', October 16. 2014 and 'Plato as a critic of Aristotle', November 14, 2014 … 'Socrates , Parmenides, and the Pythagoreans', January 30, 2015 and 'Aritotle's response to Plato's Parmenides', February 6, 2015 on my blog).

My lectures will take place in Stromovka, a former deer-park for Prague kings. We shall meet each day at 5 p.m. at the Planetárium, near Výstavište.

Allow me to invite you to this event. My invitation is similar to the invitations I sent in 1978 to Oxford, Harvard, Heidelberg and West Berlin Universities. In those days I invited academics of those universities to my unofficial seminar. I could not offer them anything but a room with students eager to listen to what my visitors had to say. This time I have even less to offer – or more? 35 years ago, in August 1980 I spent a month reading Plato’s Phaedrus in Stromovka with Dr Kathleen Wilkes from Oxford University; you can see some photos of my meetings with Kathy on my blog in the post of May 17: ‘An afternoon at Balliol – an invitation’; the photos are from the archives of the Czechoslovak Secret Police. We were sitting on a bench situated some 5 minute walk from the Planetárium. Stromovka is a great park; if it rains, we shall discuss philosophy under umbrellas.

In ‘Self-knowledge as an imperative’ I argue: neurophysiology allows us to see that the information about the outside world is processed by our brains, which are organized in structures and engaged in activities, which are demonstrably different from the outside world that we perceive, organized as it is in space and unfolding in time. This means that there must be in us an entity fundamentally different from our brains, which receives the information about the outside world as it is stored and processed in our brains and transforms it into the ‘outside world’ we perceive around us; I have called this entity Human Spiritual Nature, HSN.

The main uniting theme of the 'Three days in Prague devoted to philosophy' will be the question, how can philosophy contribute to the optimal development of our HSN. It was this question that has recently led me back to Kant (I devoted a lot of time to Kant in my twenties), as can be seen from the entries on my blog devoted to him. Kant has led me to thinking a lot about Hume, and Berkeley, and Locke, and so I have decided to devote as much time to them before I go to Prague, as my work on Aristotle and Kant will allow me.

I knew I should begin with Locke, but I could not bring myself to do so, for Locke does not bring the most pleasant memories to my mind. Locke’s Essay concerning Human Understanding was the first book on philosophy I had ever read in English. I remember sitting in the Prague City Library, reading a few paragraphs, falling asleep, waking myself up, forcing myself to read a few more paragraphs, then falling asleep again – I conscientiously plodded through the whole book, and when examined on modern philosophy, I got Locke, and ended up with mark 2 (second best), aiming for mark 1. And so I have started with Berkeley’s Principles; Berkeley was a great revelation to me in my early twenties; he truly introduced me to philosophy. (Barbara Day notes in The Velvet Philosophers devoted to Oxford – Prague adventure: ‘In the period between 1977 and 1980, Tomin ran courses on Pre-Socratic Philosophy, Plato, Aristotle, Aristophanes, Hume, William James, Wittgenstein and Berkeley, based on the gift from Germany of eight copies of Berkeley’s Principles of Human Knowledge, a work of epistemology and metaphysics which, Kathy Wilkes later observed, must have baffled the listening cops [they had installed listening devises in our house]. It also baffled some of the students, who felt it was not what they had expected; however, it was good for their English.’ The Claridge Press, 1999, p. 27-28)

So far I’ve read only G. J. Warnock’s ‘Introduction’ to Berkeley’s Principles. Warnock cannot introduce Berkeley without Locke; his Locke brought me straight into the main theme of my ‘Self-knowledge’: ‘It is an essential feature of Locke’s doctrine that, strictly speaking, we are directly aware only of ideas in our own minds. These mental entities, the only objects of which we are directly aware, “represent” to us those external objects from whose operations they are supposed to originate: of external objects themselves we cannot be directly aware.’ (George Berkeley, The Principles of Human Knowledge, Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, Fontana Press, 1985, p. 13) Without mentioning Kant in this connection, Warnock outlines the road from Locke to Kant’s Ding an sich ‘Thing in itself’: ‘[Locke] wishes to hold, on general grounds, that there are two kinds of varieties of substance – “material” substance, that something to which all the qualities of material things ultimately belong, and “immaterial” substance, in which inhere such non-material properties as consciousness, sensation, and the ability to think. But Locke sees, rightly, that he can really have no ground for this opinion … all we can say of substance is that it is “something, we know not what” … since about substance we cannot know anything at all.’ (p. 15)

Neurophysiology provides us with a very dependable ground for Locke’s opinion, highlighted by Warnock as untenable. This is what my ‘Self-knowledge’ is all about. This does not necessarily mean metaphysical dualism. Living organisms could have developed their ability to interact with their surroundings – reach for food, avoid danger – only by developing a mode of existence fundamentally different from their anatomical structures.

Let me remark that neurophysiology disposes of Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities; ‘the former, he argues, really are “in” external subjects, but the latter, though “by mistake” we naturally take them for “real qualities” of objects, strictly speaking are nothing more than modes in which objects happen to affect such sensitive organisms as we are.’ (Warnock, p. 13). Such things as ‘edges’ belong to Locke’s primary qualities. Carpenter and Reddi write in their Neurophysiology: ‘Receptors in the eye convey information about only a miniscule part of the retinal image, in effect a single pixel; but after a few levels have been passed, in the visual cortex, we find units that are able to respond to a specific type of stimulus, such as a moving edge, over wide areas of the visual field.’ (p. 10) Colours on the other hand, which belong to Locke’s secondary qualities, are much more ‘primary’; perception of colours is performed in substance on the retina, by cones, special photocells. But neither are in external objects; colours correspond to different wavelengths of electromagnetic waves reflected from objects, the edges don’t tell us anything about the atomic structures of objects the edges of which we can see and feel. Both belong to those features of the outside world of our perception, which allow us to move safely in the outside world. So safely that for millennia people could believe that what we perceive as the outside world simply is the outside world; we all perceive it as such in our everyday lives.

I hope to be meeting you in Prague on Friday September 4, at 5 pm in Stromovka at the Planetárium, near Výstavište.

P.S. I paid for my return air ticket to Prague £226.40. I asked Jan Hus Foundation to help me with this expense, but I obtained a negative response: The Foundation supports only events planned in advance. And so I asked the director of the Foundation to plan the event for the next year, for I hope Three days in Prague devoted to philosophy will become an annual event, carrying on the heritage of the ‘underground seminars’ of the 1970s in Prague.
Why Jan Hus Foundation? Let me quote the Wikipedia entry: ‘The foundation was created after Czech dissident philosopher Julius Tomin, unable at that time to hold a job in a university because of his anti-communist views, wrote in 1978 to four Western universities asking them to support philosophy seminars he was holding in his apartment in Prague; the seminars were known as bytové seminảři(home seminars).’

Since my financial situation isn’t rosy – see ‘It has nothing to do with Oxford University’ on my blog, posted June 19 – would you suggest to me a foundation that I might approach in this matter with some hope of success?

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