THURSDAY, AUGUST 26, 2021
...during the street-fighting '60s: When our near-neighbor Thoreau went into the woods, he found himself part of a vast interactive congress of sympathy.
"Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar leaves almost takes away my breath," he claimed at one point in the famous book he produced.
As presented, that was a sympathy with, rather than a sympathy for. But whatever he may have meant by the term, the sympathy to which he referred seemed to move in two directions:
"Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me," he wrote in that same chapter, Solitude. But he also asked this:
"Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?"
He also offered the following view, speaking of "the indescribable innocence and beneficence of Nature,—of sun and wind and rain, of summer and winter:"
"Such sympathy have they ever with our race, that all Nature would be affected, and the sun’s brightness fade, and the winds would sigh humanely, and the clouds rain tears, and the woods shed their leaves and put on mourning in midsummer, if any man should ever for a just cause grieve."
That was his measure of the sympathy the sun and wind and the rain had with our (human) race.
In the presence of such sympathy, the seer said he never felt lonely. Eventually, he decided to take a type of sidelong shot at "Cambridge College," fair Harvard:
I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men [sic] than when we stay in our chambers. A man [sic] thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will. Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man [sic] and his fellows. The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervish in the desert.
The diligent student in a crowded hive was every bit as solitary as Thoreau in his hut. At any rate, he found it tiresome to be in company, "even with the best."
To what type of "sympathy" was Thoreau referring in these various passages? Possibly not to the type of sympathy we felt this morning as we read these letters to the New York Times—letters from exhausted, badly overworked nurses during this trying time.
With those letters, we take our leave of Thoreau and think instead of Louisa May Alcott, bravely nursing in D.C. during the Civil War. One current-day nurse, "betrayed and disrespected," offers this thought in the Times:
"Get your vaccines, wear a mask, wash your hands, stay home. Is it really so hard? I never realized how selfish Americans are until this pandemic."
She doesn't attempt to explain her use of the term "selfish." That said, we're all alive at a staggering time—at a time when the non-rational impulses of our species have been put on display in a way rarely seen in the past.
Thoreau's book has been remembered. The ten shown below have been lost:
The most important philosophy books of the 20th century:
1) Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
2) Martin Heidegger, Being and Time
3) John Rawls, A Theory of Justice
4) Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
5) Bertrand Russell and A. N. Whitehead, Principia Mathematica
6) W. V. O. Quine, Word and Object
7) Saul Kripke, Naming and Necessity
8) Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
9) Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness
10) A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality
No one knows what Professor Quine said. No one has ever heard of Kripke.
Some will claim that Rawls' book—it appeared in 1971—has had some effect on the public discourse. This merely shows the vast extent to which we're willing to go as we deceive ourselves.
For what it's worth, there's a certain slightly inbred quality to that list. In 1924, Whitehead came to Harvard, where he spent the rest of his career. While there, he wrote the tenth most important book of the century. Also, he served at doctoral dissertation supervisor to Quine, who wrote the sixth most important.
Kripke and Kuhn were also Harvard guys, along with Professor Rawls. Kripke's remarkable capsule biography runs exactly like this:
Kripke began his important work on the semantics of modal logic (the logic of modal notions such as necessity and possibility) while he was still a high-school student in Omaha, Nebraska. A groundbreaking paper from this period, “A Completeness Theorem for Modal Logic,” was published in the Journal of Symbolic Logic in 1959, during Kripke’s freshman year at Harvard University.
In 1962 he graduated from Harvard with the only non-honorary degree he ever received, a B.S. in mathematics. He remained at Harvard until 1968, first as a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows and then as a lecturer. During those years he continued a series of publications extending his original results in modal logic; he also published important papers in intuitionistic logic (the logic underlying the mathematical intuitionism of L.E.J. Brouwer), set theory, and the theory of transfinite recursion (see recursive function).
Kripke taught logic and philosophy at Rockefeller University from 1968 to 1976 and at Princeton University, as McCosh Professor of Philosophy, from 1976 until his retirement in 1998.
When we were in college, our graduate student friends—they'd both served as Rhodes Scholars, after graduating in 1960 and 1964—used to talk about Kripke. Or are we thinking of Dreben? Given how way has led on to way, it's hard to be totally sure.
The Cambridge College connections hardly end at that point. Kuhn took his undergraduate and doctoral degrees at Harvard, then taught there until 1956. We studied his book—quite likely the sanest of the lot—when we took Philosophy of Science from Professor Putnam in the street-fighting year of 1967-68.
Professor Putnam, a very nice person, was the 18th most important philosopher of the last two hundred years, according to this survey. He was also the man who joined with Professor Quine to formulate the Quine–Putnam indispensability argument, "an argument for the reality of mathematical entities," whatever that might mean.
We only remember the heart-shaped pool. But why go into that?
We're trying to pose a question here as we offer these bits:
In a very famous book, Thoreau engaged in a type of sympathy with everything that lives. His book is still remembered, as is the most famous book of his neighbor, Alcott.
By way of contrast, no one has ever heard of Word and Object, let alone of Naming and Necessity And no one has the slightest idea what "model logic" is.
The authors of those most important books form a branch of the best and the brightest; most are described as logicians The world they defined and inhabited is the world Wittgenstein entered in 1911, when he appeared unannounced at Russell's rooms, over there in the other Cambridge.
They're a branch of even the best and the brightest. Their raw intellectual brilliance can't sanely be questioned.
But what in the world were they talking about? Were they talking about anything at all? Also, could a different application of their skills have defeated the current insanity?
The current insanity is quite widespread. We see no obvious route of escape.
How many of even our best logicians have ever even tried to address it? Go ahead! Until the Greenland ice sheet goes, you can take as much time as you need!
Tomorrow: Professor Nozick's theory