Posts from November, 2010
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November 9th, 2010

The Civil War made a very distinction between the old and the new. The very interesting time period it represented was hardly to define as either the cause or the consequence of the war. Its significance not only shaped the post-war generation of America, but also bred the new thoughts that became the foundation of a modern society.

October, 1961, Confederate forces were assembled in the town of Leesburg. In the other end of the world, 3 months ago, a debate on a new theory was heated up. At the end of that debate, Thomas Huxley claimed his “preference for being the ape”. From that cruelty battle in Leesburg Wendell Holmes Jr. was returned. He is the one of the 800 survivors in that battle, and 900 soldiers was left for death. In a little town Burlington, John Dewey was about twenty days away from his 2-year-old birthday.

The United States was founded on a set of ideas. These ideas were written down in the Constitution. They were thought to be a set of axioms, but they were not meant to be permanent. The Congress had the power to amend the Constitution. The system was meant to be a framework for negotiation, to make compromises between relevant parties, and the absolute Truth could be approximated through such struggles. The Civil War was a failure. Not only a failure of South, but also a failure of the democracy system.

Wendell Holmes Jr. was wounded, and sent back to the field for 3 times. Holmes was not only wounded physically, but emotionally. He was enlisted for an idea, but the soldiers fought for professionalism. The professionalism led to victory; no particular idea could do that. After the war, in 1881, Holmes published his first edition of “The Common Law”. One year later, a great mind of his time, Charles Darwin in England passed away. After the publication of “the Origin of Species”, Darwin spent the rest of his life to plot the answer to the grand question: how man becomes man. He wanted to prove, there is no absolute model of man for which we were based on. We are imperfect, for sure, but is there a perfect image we should pursuit? He doubted. Soon, in 1882, John Dewey started his first year in John Hopkins University. He quickly became a member of Pierce’s Metaphysical Club. It took time for the young and brilliant graduate to fully appreciate what he was exposed there.

Establishing the absoluteness was convenient. Our belief system made an omnipotent God that is absolute good. The whole Platonism was about taking a glance at the perfect existence, and projecting some good from it. We, these enlightened ones, though still carried the imperfect pathetic human soul, were morally obligated to help those unenlightened, to civilize them. FitzRoy as an English gentleman, were morally responsible to teach those Fuegians the civilized life. The abolitionists were obligated to enlighten their southern neighbors how wrong of slavery was. The absoluteness signified the stupidness of the opponent or hinted a darker possibility. What if the southerner was fully aware of the absurdness of having slavery in a civilized country but only hindered by the amount of interests behind slavery? Seeing the Truth but ignoring it, that was no more than evil. The civilized ones used the most uncivilized method to convince the unenlightened. In that sense, the Civil War is no more than the Crusades in the Middle Ages.

In “the Common Law”, Wendell Holmes Jr. developed the idea that the law was not a set of axioms. Rather, the judicial decisions based on the law in fact draws premises from experience of the judge. It was subjective, consensual and social, but not pure logical at all. When John Dewey continued his study in John Hopkins, Peirce was interested in the casualty which never got scratched in Darwin’s theory. What caused the variation in Darwin’s theory? Chance, as Peirce perceived, absolute chance played the role for the development of law and the conformity to law. As well educated on Mathematics as Peirce, this was a critical thinking to Darwinism from statistics point of view. Dewey listened his lecturing on Design and Chance for sure, but at his study, he was more resonated to the German philosophers. Hegel’s Absolute Mind was so close to his personal Christianity belief of God.

Evolution is a theory to remove the divinity of man’s creation. Our soul is a production of our physical brain; and from the same vein, we are not far from animal. We varied, changed, for a little niche at a time that made us more adapted to the environment than ever. From the origin of life, the evolution leads to nowhere to end. There is no perfection, it is the continuity of change and adaption. No one would claim that they are perfect. Hegel humbly admitted that we are quite imperfect and only can perceive part of the reality. But if we cannot achieve perfection, there is a stronger hint that no perfect beings can exist. The classic science is about to find the suppose perfect law, which we can only approximate in experiment. Galileo never had a ball to roll forever on an infinite long trail, but we don’t hesitate to accept the Newton’s First Law: every body remains in a state of rest or uniform motion (constant velocity) unless it is acted upon by an external unbalanced force. The simplicity of the law itself gives us the confidence that absolute truth can be drawn from the imperfect facts. But at the end of 19th century, Darwinians told us that the belief we hold in scientific community for almost 200 years or much longer from religious perspective may not be true.

Holmes later in “the Path of the Law” developed his practical sense of the law to a radical level. He suggested, to take the view of a bad man “who cares only the material consequences of things”, therefore, being fined or taxed for doing certain things really made no difference. And one step further, he acknowledged that the evolutionists was “content to affirm validity if they were the best here and now”, but had known “nothing about the absolute best of the cosmos”. John Dewey was an evolutionist indeed. He was the new generation who was grown up with Darwin’s theory. Even John Hopkins, the university he enrolled, had Thomas Huxley, the world most intimately associated Darwinist to address on the opening. But it would be much later that Dewey developed his very own view about Darwinism.

To abandon the existence of absolute Truth is a leap forward. From evolutionist’s perspective, nothing lasts. There is no such thing as self-evident, even the most obvious ones such as “every man has a right to do what he wills, provided he interferes not with a like right on the part of his neighbors” no matter how much we are ready to accept it. It is the variations, the adapting to environment, which results the world as it is today. The moral value we hold, is merely a reflection of our experience in this world. The conclusions we draw from the physical world, is not from some projection of perfect images. We pick and choose the relevant part of experience from life, and reach the conclusion through personal sensation. There is no divinity in such process. The morality doesn’t encompass us to any direction, it is a set of compromises we made in evolution process. It is a result rather than the causality.

On December, 1902, president Theodore Roosevelt nominated Wendell Holmes Jr. to a seat on Supreme Court. During his 30-year service in Supreme Court, Holmes intensively exercised his pragmatic view of law into his practice. The interpretation of Constitution, as he protested, was not a logical deduction; it was a development to embody the contemporary reality. 4 years ago, William James in his speech at Berkeley, first identified the pragmatism which, in James’ words only recognized the significance of thought as it had impact to consequent actions. Even earlier than that, John Dewey spent significant portion of his time to investigate an interesting psychology fact called “reflex arc”: you place a subject in front of a screen and instruct him to press a key when light is up and record the time between light being up and pressing the key. The essential elements in reflex arc - sensation, idea, action - was believed by 19th century psychologists to be the basic structure of mental activity.

“reflex arc” is an illusion, a post facto interpretation of what is happened. We perceive the stimulus and response as two separated stages. It is a circuit, a continual reconstitution. There is no causality for which one causes another. It is the continuous interaction that we perceive as action. We label the different stages only to facilitate our desire of separating mind and action. In pragmatism perspective, that doesn’t make much sense. Mind and body are in fact the one thing. They are, as an organic circuit, indivisible.

John Dewey dismissed the mind-body problem as a pseudo one. To him, in pragmatism sense, thought without action was meaningless. In 1896, Dewey published the short article “The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology”; but it never got reprinted. It was until 1904 that William James received the copy of Dewey’s short essay, along with essays from Chicago philosophy department. These essays, were the ‘New Thought’, as William James called, that Dewey and his colleagues developed in Chicago. In Dewey’s pragmatism, no knowledge exists independently before it is known. The world was dynamic, personal and yet definitive only through the action of our own. It was our very own action made us to believe. Wendell Holmes Jr. held more or less the same idea. In Lochner v. New York (1905), on the dissent, he wrote that “general propositions do not decide concrete cases.” For him, there were too much intent, malice, and negligence, which made the law obscure. It was a step too far, from professionalism standpoint, for a judge to investigate intent. Thus, for a professional judge, the only thing matters was the action and the consequence of such action. The thought without action was meaningless to reach judicial decision.

Darwin downplayed the mental ability of man in his book “the Descent of Man”. The ability to think, was no more than a niche to adapt the environment. It was Darwin, who believed that action shaped our thoughts. In “the Descent of Man”, Darwin compared the mental facility and higher functionalities of human to a range of animals. He concluded that these abilities were not unique. It was appeal to Darwin that if action led to thought, his variations in Natural Selection could concentrate on physical aspect alone.

As humble man as John Dewey was, he was a reformer in his time. His pragmatism was developed, not only as an understanding to the current world, but also a mean for making good. It served as a justification for him to do the good to the world. From his brief educational experiment in University of Chicago, he devoted his time in Columbia to education and democracy. Though it almost sounded like that John was taking moral higher ground for doing good thing. We’d be blind to ignore the difference between his social responsibility and FitzRoy’s. FitzRoy’s moral responsibility worked only under his assumption that English gentleman was the best to learn to be in the world. That kind of absoluteness was the key motivation for his action. John Dewey, though not as relativism as William James was, his idea was about doing good when it fit here and now, for which no absoluteness involved. The avoidance to absoluteness became a symbol to this generation of American intellectuals. Holmes’ moral relativism led to his support of a broad reading for free speech.

Darwin’s theory can be read as many things. But for one, it shows a trend, in statistics meaning. It shows how the fixture in individual is an illusion, how the group as a whole survives and adapts to its environment. It is a chain of endless variations towards nowhere. For American intellectuals in the end of 19th century, the statistics meaning gave them a new perspective into how the society worked. Wendell Holmes saw a law for action; John Dewey saw the continuity of mind and action. The “fitness”, spelled the out the new ideology for, as we call it today, the modern society.

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November 5th, 2010

is on Linode now.

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November 4th, 2010
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November 1st, 2010