Monday, April 25, 2011

introducing the ussr

 three patron heroes of the ussr

The following planned to be my debut video posting, but I've had a crisis of confidence and probably won't post it as a video. I actually think I would be best if I just got someone to interview me for videos.

Hello, welcome to the USSR, with me, Luigi Funesti Sordido - perhaps. I'm here to provide you with some pabulum I hope, and some diverting and delightfully edifying discourse on a variety of topics. This first discourse is introductory, in which I'll explain the USSR and its great significance. The USSR stands for the Urbane Society for Sceptical Romantics, of which I, Luigi Funesti Sordido am the founding secretary and sole member, and clearly this society is founded on Urbanity, Scepticism and Romanticism, or at least the founder's conception of those concepts.

So let me take these terms in reverse order. Romanticism, to me, is a simple idea or state, in which the thing focused on becomes, at least temporarily more than the sum of its parts, being invested with emotion, imagination, ideality, even transcendence, dare I say. This is often called the 'swoon' effect, and it can be brought on by a woman's smile, a memory, a mathematical equation, a landscape, a piece of music, a journey, a joke, a reading, a conversation, almost anything. It's a moment or a feeling charged with wonder and delight, and is often associated, however vaguely, with sex, in that I strongly suspect that the parts of the brain that light up or are revved up by this state are also involved in feelings of sexual passion and lust.

So romanticism isn't much associated with rationalism, though I wouldn't want to call it irrational which has all sorts of negative connotations. Perhaps non-rational is the term to use, but I think that romanticism provides a strong emotional current that can partly power our lives, and I think there's a lot to be said for it, and I think it should be encouraged.

Now scepticism is another matter. A popular notion of scepticism has arisen in recent years, associating it with sceptical groups, podcasts, magazines and  celebrity sceptics. This is quite a different version of scepticism from the old philosophical notion, which was a position of radical doubt, including doubt of the status of all knowledge and even existence. The modern notion, which I don't reject, as I find it quite useful, is based largely on science and the nature of evidence – that it must be verifiable, testable, repeatable and so forth. In some respects it's odd that this focus on evidence has come to be identified with the term 'scepticism', but be that as it may, this is the way I'm using the term, along with a residual sense of the philosophical usage, which involves a kind of state of eternal uncertainty, that all knowledge is conditional, even ephemeral, and just a bit untrustworthy. My sense of scepticism has been shaped by a number of intellectual heroes from the past. First, Socrates. Whether Socrates is generally regarded as a sceptic I'm not sure, but my Socrates is a sceptic.

We know of Socrates' reputation but little about his actual ideas. The Socrates of Xenophon seems little more than an idealised version of Xenophon, and the Socrates of Plato can't really be differentiated from Plato's ideas. For some time it was generally thought that the Socrates of Plato's early, less conclusive dialogues might be the most accurate depiction we have, a depiction of someone concerned with the most basic concepts – basic in the sense of fundamental but also in the sense of 'everyday'. The concepts of ordinary, not necessarily well-educated or philosphically-minded citizens, concepts they used to get by in their daily interactions. Socrates questioned the assumptions behind these everyday concepts and exposed their contradictions. Perhaps the two key sayings associated with this version of Socrates are 'I know nothing, but my advantage over others is that I know that I know nothing', and 'the unexamined life is not worth living'. Clearly, this is good sceptical stuff – not so good on the positive theory-building, but excellent for the negative ground-clearing.

Another sceptical hero is Michel de Montaigne, one of the greatest of all practitioners of the essay, whose motto was 'What do I know?'. Montaigne often used himself as the subject of his essays, not so much out of egotism but because the self and its mind were, to him, subjects of the most immediate knowledge, via direct perception [think of Descartes a couple of generations later]. Everything else was that much more uncertain. He was also far from being an abstruse 'academic' philosopher, always choosing to write in an accessible but highly discursive style, letting his thoughts take him where they might.

I'll mention one last sceptical thinker, though there are many to choose from. David Hume represents in some ways a bridge between the old established philosophical concept of scepticism, with its largely negative, undermining overtones, and a more positive and modern concept, emphasising evidence and scientific methodologies in the establishment of sure knowledge. Hume was a major figure of the eighteenth century enlightenment, and an inheritor of the seventeenth century scientific revolution in Britain, spearheaded by the likes of Boyle, Hooke, Newton and Halley. He was also as outspoken a critic of religion as it was safe to be in an age where even the leading scientific figures swore by their faith.

Hume's opening remarks in his essay, 'The Sceptic', beautifully capture, to me, the essence of an initially negative, but healthy scepticism:

I HAVE long entertained a suspicion, with regard to the decisions of philosophers upon all subjects, and found in myself a greater inclination to dispute, than assent to their conclusions. There is one mistake, to which they seem liable, almost without exception; they confine too much their principles, and make no account of that vast variety, which nature has so much affected in all her operations. When a philosopher has once laid hold of a favourite principle, which perhaps accounts for many natural effects, he extends the same principle over the whole creation, and reduces to it every phænomenon, though by the most violent and absurd reasoning. Our own mind being narrow and contracted, we cannot extend our conception to the variety and extent of nature; but imagine, that she is as much bounded in her operations, as we are in our speculation.

These remarks are as relevant today as they were when first written: happy 300th birthday, David Hume.

So, that's scepticism, a major focus of the USSR. Urbanity I've left to last. Urbanity is of the city, it's what we like to imagine our cities are about, sophistication, diversity, eclecticism, imagination, pragmatism. One of the features of the great urban centres is that they're in some sense the same, in their mix of cultures and periods and styles, in their boldness and their staleness, in their recognisability and their anonymity, in their inspirational yet frightening and overwhelming nature. To be on top of that, or to seem to be, to be riding the wave of it all with a more or less affected nonchalance, is to be urbane. So urbanity, in the context of the USSR, is the tremulous overarching force that connects scepticism and romanticism and combines them into some sort of coherent and workable form. Perhaps.

So that introduces and pretends to explain the new ussr, as opposed to the old one, that bunch of Ultra Silly Soviet Ratbags. Next time, perhaps, our first edifying discourse...