October 2020: start here?

Blog organisation, and some more dubious ideas from the romantic movement

Hello again. This month was… ok, I guess, for writing and getting stuff done. I haven’t had my brain completely destroyed by the news yet, as I was fearing last month. Still have to get through whatever the Americans have lined up for us next month, and whatever Europe has lined up for second wave covid, which is looking grim currently. So will have to see how November turns out.

I’m still trying to get this ‘Worse than quantum mechanics’ blog post written up. I’ve done the calculations I need, and it works really well. I don’t know whether it’s original, or it’s in the literature and I just can’t find it, or it’s from the ghost library, and it’s a pain to find out. So I’m just going to write it up and then ask around. The actual writing is being more annoying than I expected, I think because I don’t quite know how to structure it or something? I did start writing up background notes, but most of doesn’t make much sense on its own and the only bit I pushed is this very dull qubit phase space cheat sheet.

I also wrote a ‘start here’ type page for the blog. I’ve been meaning to do this for ages because all it had was an unhelpful dump of all posts in chronological order. This has got particularly useless since the notebook blog experiment, because it’s all clogged up with nonsense about neoliberalism, bullshit jobs and My Little Pony, and gives no idea at all about what the blog is about. I’ve tried to pick out some general themes from the blog and linked some of the posts I like from each theme. Hopefully that is somewhat better, suggestions welcome.

None of this was particularly helpful for newsletter inspiration. I didn’t have any great ideas, so I’ve gone back to Berlin’s The Roots of Romanticism, which I started on two months ago, and have written up some notes on the next chunk. It’s still astounding to me how many ideas are prefigured here. Schiller has a faintly Keganish developmental stages thing, and Fichte has a Pragmatism-like understanding of the grounding of knowledge in action. But there’s always some extra craziness about the transcendent world-spirit or something mixed in.

More romantics: Fichte and Schiller

Friedrich Schiller, German Philosopher, Poet and Playwright' Giclee Print -  | AllPosters.com

I was googling for an image of Fichte and Schiller, and found… an advert for a brand of meat extract? Not what I was expecting, but it’ll do.

Last time I covered Hamann, Herder and Kant as early influences on romanticism. Now we're getting into romanticism proper, but still sort of a transitional stage. Berlin divides this part of the book into two chapters, 'Restrained Romanticism' and 'Unbridled Romanticism', and Schiller and Fichte get lumped in with the earlier three in the restrained chapter. Still, we're starting to get into some nuttier ideas, particularly with Fichte.


So Schiller, then. Apparently, like Kant, he was very fixated on human freedom:

There are certain characteristic expressions which Schiller uses throughout his writings, not only in his philosophical essays, but also in his plays. He constantly speaks of spiritual freedom: freedom of reason, the kingdom of freedom, our free self, inner freedom, freedom of mind, moral freedom, the free intelligence – a very favourite phrase – holy freedom, the impregnable citadel of freedom; and there are expressions in which instead of the word ‘freedom’ he uses the word ‘independence’.

But he had a different view of it:

Schiller rejected the Kantian solution, fundamentally because it seemed to him that though Kant’s will liberates us from nature, he puts us on a very narrow moral road, into too grim, too confining a Calvinist world, where the only alternatives are either being the plaything of nature or following this grim path of Lutheran duty which Kant thought in terms of – a path which maims and destroys, cramps and crimps human nature. If man is to be free he must be free not merely to do his duty, he must be free to choose between either following nature or doing his duty quite freely.

I can't get very interested in this distinction, I'm afraid, so I'm moving on. Here's something I find a lot more interesting, a sort of model of human development:

Schiller’s fundamental view is that man goes through three stages: first what he calls the Notstaat, that is to say the state which is governed by necessity, in the form of something called the Stofftrieb – ‘stuff-drive’ is the literal translation, ‘drive’ in the modern psychological sense.

... It is followed by a state which is not savage, but in which, on the contrary, men, in order to improve their condition, adopt very rigid principles, and make these principles a kind of fetish; and this Schiller calls a barbarian state, interestingly enough.

... But this is not enough, and there is a third condition, towards which Schiller aspires. Like all idealist writers of his time, Schiller imagines that once upon a time there was a marvellous human unity, a golden age, where passion was not divided from reason, and liberty was not divided from necessity. Then something appalling happened: division of labour, inequality, civilisation – in short, culture occurred, rather on the lines of Rousseau, and, as a result of this, ungovernable desires, jealousies, envies, men divided against other men, men divided against themselves, fraud, misery, alienation. How are we to get back to this original state without lapsing into some kind of innocence or childishness which is plainly neither feasible nor desirable? This must be done, according to Schiller, by means of art, liberation by art. What does he have in mind?

This seems like an older relative of the Kegan 3/4/5 idea, even if the details are different. Schiller's involves a fall from a previous golden age, whereas Kegan is (much more plausibly) building toward new capacities. But the rough pattern of locked-into-the-world -> rigid rules -> fusion of the two is very similar. I wonder why this sort of idea is so compelling?

Digression on Philip Pullman and some other stuff

There's another rabbithole round here that could be interesting to go down. I can't resist poking my head into the tunnel, at least. I was reading Philip Pullman's Daemon Voices last year (made a few notes in an old newsletter here) and learned that he was deeply influenced by Heinrich von Kleist's essay On the Marionette Theatre. This is short and available online, and it's well worth a read if you like the His Dark Materials books. Kleist is interested in the difference between the unconscious grace of young children and animals, and the self-consciousness that develops in adolescence:

"And what is the advantage your puppets would have over living dancers?"

"The advantage? First of all a negative one, my friend: it would never be guilty of affectation. For affectation is seen, as you know, when the soul, or moving force, appears at some point other than the centre of gravity of the movement. Because the operator controls with his wire or thread only this centre, the attached limbs are just what they should be. Lifeless, pure pendulums, governed only by the law of gravity. This is an excellent quality. You'll look for it in vain in most of our dancers."

"Just look at that girl who dances Daphne", he went on. "Pursued by Apollo, she turns to look at him. At this moment her soul appears to be in the small of her back. As she bends, she look as if she's going to break, like a naiad after the school of Bernini. Or take that young fellow who dances Paris when he's standing among the three goddesses and offering the apple to Venus. His soul is in fact located (and it's a frightful thing to see) in his elbow."

"Misconceptions like this are unavoidable," he said, "now that we've eaten of the tree of knowledge. But Paradise is locked and bolted, and the cherubim stands behind us. We have to go on and make the journey round the world to see if it is perhaps open somewhere at the back."

You can see traces of this all the way through His Dark Materials: one example would be the role of the alethiometer, where Lyra first reads it intuitively, 'by grace', and then has to relearn to read it by hard work. And it's very close to Schiller's idea of three stages. The last lines are maybe even closer:

"Now, my excellent friend," said my companion, "you are in possession of all you need to follow my argument. We see that in the organic world, as thought grows dimmer and weaker, grace emerges more brilliantly and decisively. But just as a section drawn through two lines suddenly reappears on the other side after passing through infinity, or as the image in a concave mirror turns up again right in front of us after dwindling into the distance, so grace itself returns when knowledge has as it were gone through an infinity. Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god."

"Does that mean", I said in some bewilderment, "that we must eat again of the tree of knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence?"

"Of course", he said, "but that's the final chapter in the history of the world."

It would make sense if Kleist was directly influenced by Schiller: he was writing a few decades later, and his wikipedia page says that he wrote essays which 'show a keen insight into the metaphysical questions discussed by philosophers of his time, such as Kant, Fichte and Schelling'. And also, shit, apparently this is how he died???:

... Captivated by the intellectual and musical accomplishments of the terminally ill Henriette Vogel, Kleist, who was himself more disheartened and embittered than ever, agreed to do her bidding and die with her, carrying out this resolution by first shooting Vogel and then himself on the shore of the Kleiner Wannsee (Little Wannsee) near Potsdam, on 21 November 1811.

That's... a lot... even by the standards of the romantic movement.


Right, let's claw myself out of the rabbithole before I disappear completely, and get back to the main topic. Fichte also had some variant on Kant’s ideas of free will, which seems to involve getting very excited about it:

‘At the mere mention of the name freedom’, says Fichte, ‘my heart opens and flowers, while at the word necessity it contracts painfully.’

Other than that I didn’t really follow the details. As with Schiller I couldn’t get interested in that bit. I was interested in this bit, though, on Fichte’s view of knowledge:

Life does not begin with disinterested contemplation of nature or of objects. Life begins with action. Knowledge is an instrument, as afterwards William James and Bergson and many others were to repeat; knowledge is simply an instrument provided by nature for the purpose of effective life, of action; knowledge is knowing how to survive, knowing what to do, knowing how to be, knowing how to adapt things to our use, knowing, in other words, how to live (and what to do in order not to perish), in some unawakened, semi-instinctive fashion.

… Because I live in a certain way, things appear to me in a certain fashion: the world of a composer is different from the world of a butcher; the world of a man in the seventeenth century is different from the world of a man in the twelfth century. There may be certain things which are common, but there are more things, or more important things at any rate, which, for him, are not.

I like this a lot, and it’s fascinating to see an earlier version of ideas that crop up later in the Pragmatists and then in Heidegger and Wittgenstein. But then the world-spirit stuff starts coming in. It starts well, with a sort of Merleau-Ponty-like thing about being constrained by the body:

Fichte began by talking about individuals, then he asked himself what an individual was, how one could become a perfectly free individual. One obviously cannot become perfectly free so long as one is a three-dimensional object in space, because nature confines one in a thousand ways.

But wait! Maybe we can get round this!

Therefore the only perfectly free being is something larger than man, it is something internal – although I cannot force my body, I can force my spirit. Spirit for Fichte is not the spirit of an individual man, but something which is common to many men, and it is common to many men because each individual spirit is imperfect, because it is to some extent hemmed in and confined by the particular body which it inhabits. But if you ask what pure spirit is, pure spirit is some kind of transcendent entity (rather like God), a central fire of which we are all individual sparks – a mystical notion which goes back at least to Boehme.

From this point the ideas just get worse. Last time I talked about Herder’s early version of nationalism, which as Berlin tells it was fairly innocuous, a fascination with the distinctiveness of cultures and their different ways of experiencing the world. Fichte combined Herder’s strand of nationalism with his own conception of freedom and the will to get a much more virulent, aggressive kind:

Gradually, after Napoleon’s invasions and the general rise of nationalist sentiment in Germany, Fichte began thinking that perhaps what Herder said of human beings was true, that a man was made a man by other men, that a man was made a man by education, by language... So, gradually, he moved from the notion of the individual as an empirical human being in space to the notion of the individual as something larger, say a nation, say a class, say a sect. Once you move to that, then it becomes its business to act, it becomes its business to be free, and for a nation to be free means to be free of other nations, and if other nations obstruct it, it must make war…

So Fichte ends as a rabid German patriot and nationalist. If we are a free nation, if we are a great creator engaged upon creating those great values which in fact history has imposed upon us, because we happen not to have been corrupted by the great decadence which has fallen upon the Latin nations; if we happen to be younger, healthier, more vigorous than those decadent peoples (and here Francophobia emerges again) who are nothing but the debris of what was once no doubt a fine Roman civilisation – if that is what we are, then we must be free at the expense of no matter what, and therefore, since the world cannot be half slave and half free, we must conquer the others, and absorb them into our texture.

So this is going to be the backdrop to the ‘unbridled romanticism’ of the next section.

Next month

Not sure what I’ll do for the newsletter next time. I might plug through some more romantics and get this Berlin book finished. I’ve also just bought Liberman’s More Studies in Ethnomethodology and it looks good, so maybe I’ll want to write about that.

I will definitely keep going with the physics blog post. Hopefully I can find some kind of structure in the current mess.