On Arrival

"Like everything metaphysical, the harmony between thought and reality is to be found in the grammar of the language," wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein in his 1974 Philosophical Grammar. This could well be the epigraph for the recent film Arrivaldirected by Denis Villeneuve. The film centers upon an alien invasion that does not immediately explain itself. Twelve ships hover above the earth beckoning human beings to inquire, "Why are they here?" 

Early on two experts are enlisted to help, a physicist named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and a linguist named Louise Banks (Amy Adams). At one point Ian reads from the preface of one of Louise's books, "Language is the foundation of civilization." Louise explains briefly before Ian interjects. Surely she is wrong and science is civilization's true foundation. It is as if Ian is not just correcting Louise, but voicing an attitude of a whole genre of science fiction films. For instance, the 1997 film Contact included aliens who communicated in prime numbers. It also involved a few similar debates between its astronomer protagonist (Jodie Foster) and its religiously minded journalist (Matthew McConaughey). However, Arrival responds by showing Louise's expertise to be crucial. It troubles the typical paradigm in a way that struck me as deeply indebted to philosophies of language and a love of humanistic learning. Or, as Wittgenstein has it above, in order to reframe what is at stake in the "harmony between thought and reality." Others could be cited in the twentieth century turn to language, such as Martin Heidegger's quite different remark that "language is the house of being" in his "Letter on Humanism."

Eric Heisserer's screenplay was based on the 1998 award winning short story "The Story of Your Life," by science fiction writer Ted Chiang. The theme of language recurs in some of Chiang's other work such as, "Understand." A recent New Yorker article observed that origins of "The Story of Your Life," emerged from an idea "about accepting the arrival of the inevitable. A linguist, Chiang thought, might learn such acceptance by deciphering the language of an alien race with a different conception of time." Evidently, this interest in the relation between language and time emerged from Chiang's wider reading in linguistics. It made me think of Heidegger's Being and Timewhich developed a phenomenology of human being grounded in language. A watched pot never boils? Mathematically speaking, of course it does. But such language informs our experience of what it means to be human, impatient and hungry. Concepts such as care and angst later became key themes in existentialist philosophy. Heidegger's "Letter on Humanism" distanced himself from that legacy. Rather, he broadened the scope of his interest in poetry in On the Way to Language

The film draws its audience into this meditation on the nature of language in part [spoiler alert] by depicting the aliens as creatures somewhere between an elephant and an octopus. Both are known to be highly intelligent animals on earth. There was a recent essay on the former creatures' gifts in "If You Were an Elephant," by Charles Foster. It suggests that empathy with elephants may make us better, kinder, wiser people. Arrival's animal likenesses are both otherworldly and yet familiar. They help to illuminate the difficulties of learning the aliens' utterly different way of thinking which is expressed visually through complex pictographs. At one point Louise provides a grammar lesson to impatient military man Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to explain why so much time is needed to cross this gap between human and alien mentalities. The film takes its time in this regard, but worth the wait. It turns out that the reason for this alien arrival is grounded in the very encounter with alien language itself. This may seem rather anticlimactic but understanding the harmony between their thought and language will have significant consequences that cannot be reduced to an advance in technology.

The film left me ruminating on two points. Firstly, humanistic forms of learning often aim to expand our capacity to understand the viewpoints of people in languages and cultures different from our own. How well they succeed in doing so is much debated these days. But the film provides a thought experiment worthy of further reflection. What if the most important skill we need in a crisis is not mathematic but a humanistic capacity to learn languages with all the philosophical, historical and cultural context that involves? Secondly, the film makes the case that somehow by involving herself in this expanded linguistic capacity, Louise's character is better able to live her life with its joys and suffering. Towards the end of the film Louise asks Ian, "If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?" The film responds with a pastiche of memories and an affirmation that maybe it is possible to learn to embrace life as it arrives. I would suggest that this is a difficult hopefulness, and again much worth reflecting upon. 

Lastly, Arrival's soundtrack is deeply moving at times and also made me wonder about the film's philosophical undercurrents. One of the main songs is actually not on the soundtrack, but rather is "On the Nature of Daylight" from Max Richter's The Blue Notebooks album. The piano version of the theme is called "Written on the Sky," and the sheet music is accessible to play. It is not Wittgenstein's Blue Books referenced here as was the case in Alex Garner's 2015 Ex Machina. Rather it is Kafka's posthumously published papers, The Blue Octavo NotebooksThere, on 8 December 1917, one of Kafka's own more elusive comments on language can be found: "For everything outside the phenomenal world, language can only be used allusively, but never even approximately in a comparative way, since, corresponding as it does to the phenomenal world, it is concerned only with property and its relations." It is difficult to know just what he meant by "outside the phenomenal," but he was reading Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling around this time. Whatever the case, literary, linguistic and philosophical concepts coincide here in ways recently explored in Rebecca Schumann's recent monograph on Kafka and Wittgenstein.
Arendt on In Our Time
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the political philosophy of Hannah Arendt. She developed many of her ideas in response to the rise of totalitarianism in the C20th, partly informed by her own experience as a Jew in Nazi Germany before her escape to France and then America. She wanted to understand how politics had taken such a disastrous turn and, drawing on ideas of Greek philosophers as well as her peers, what might be done to create a better political life. Often unsettling, she wrote of ‘the banality of evil’ when covering the trial of Eichmann, one of the organisers of the Holocaust.
On Kant's Dog
As Darling puts it, ‘Our apparent desire to protect those animals to which we more easily relate indicates that we may care more about our own emotional state than any objective biological criteria.’ She looks to Kant, who saw animal ethics as serving people. ‘If a man has his dog shot . . . he thereby damages the kindly and humane qualities in himself,’ he wrote in ‘Lectures on Ethics.’ ‘A person who already displays such cruelty to animals is also no less hardened toward men...’ Some years ago, Christine M. Korsgaard, a Harvard philosopher and Kant scholar, started working on a Kantian case for animal rights... Animals can’t reason their way to choices, Kant noted, so the freedom of rights would be lost on them. If the nectar-drinking hummingbird were asked to exercise her will to the highest rational standard, she’d keep flying from flower to flower... Korsgaard argued that hanging everything on rational choice was a red herring, however, because humans, even for Kant, are not solely rational beings. They also act on impulse. The basic motivation for action, she thought, arises instead from an ability to experience stuff as good or bad, which is a trait that animals share. If we, as humans, were to claim rights to a dog’s mind and body in the way we claim rights to our yard, we would be exercising arbitrary power, and arbitrary power is what Kant seeks to avoid. So, by his principles, animals must have freedom—that is, rights—over their bodies.This view doesn’t require animals to weigh in for abstract qualities such as intelligence, consciousness, or sentience. Strictly, it doesn’t even command us never to eat poached eggs or venison. It extends Enlightenment values—a right to choice in life, to individual freedom over tyranny—to creatures that may be in our custody.

"If Animals Have Rights, Should Robots? - This is an interesting article on animal and robot ethics. It summarizes a range of approaches before demonstrating why it might help to focus on how our ethics are shaped by our interactions with creatures and things. As the author concludes, "As people, we realize our full selves through appropriation; like most animals and robots, we approach maturity by taking on the habits of the world around us, and by wielding tools."
On Pursuing Wisdom
Charles Taylor’s approach to philosophy is always shaped by deep ethical commitments and public concerns. He addresses technical intellectual problems, but he is never interested in them only as technical problems. He writes accessibly. He travels widely, not simply to speak to audiences about arguments he regards as conclusively settled but to engage in discussions that are always potential occasions for intellectual advancement ― and he listens patiently to the most naïve questions, treating each as though it might contain an important new idea. Taylor’s approach also brings philosophy into the full range of human sciences and brings the more empirical humanities and social science into philosophy. It must be so, he seems to suggest, if the study of philosophy is truly to pursue wisdom.

Craig Calhoun, "This Philosopher Has Reimainged Identity and Morality for a Secular Age," - This is a very helpful summary of Taylor's thought upon winning the inaugural Berggruen prize for philosophy. Calhoun is himself a distinguished social scientist.
On Zeno's Paradoxes
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Zeno of Elea, a pre-Socratic philosopher from c490-430 BC whose paradoxes were described by Bertrand Russell as ‘immeasurably subtle and profound.’ The best known argue against motion, such as that of an arrow in flight which is at a series of different points but moving at none of them, or that of Achilles who, despite being the faster runner, will never catch up with a tortoise with a head start. Aristotle and Aquinas engaged with these, as did Russell, yet it is still debatable whether Zeno’s Paradoxes have been resolved.

Melvin Bragg is back for a new season of In Our Time. This season begins with a discussion of Zeno's Paradoxes -
On Duchamp
Our explanation of the artwork’s power is much more controversial: we believe that Fountain is art only insofar as it is not art. It is what it is not – and this is why it is what it is. In other words, the artwork delivers a true contradiction, what’s called a dialetheia. Fountain did not simply usher in conceptual art – it afforded us an unusual and intriguing concept to consider: a work of art that isn’t really a work of art, an everyday object that is not just an everyday object... It was Duchamp’s genius to have found a way of presenting an object that was simultaneously both art and non-art. It is high time that we recognised that Duchamp’s contribution was profoundly and intentionally paradoxical.

Graham Priest, "It Is and It Isn't,"  Aeon The essay explores Duchamp's Fountain which was part of his pioneering work in Dadaism. This latter movement influenced a range of thinkers, including Karl Barth. It is also interesting that the notion of truth being discussed here is related to the Greek notion of aletheia, and it strikes me akin to Heidegger's notion of unconcealedness.
On Habermas
Unlike Kant, Habermas is a thinker of late modernity; he no longer subscribes to the lofty belief in philosophy as the ‘queen of the sciences.’ Instead, as a critical theorist in the tradition of his teachers, he embraces a conception of ‘post-metaphysical thinking’ that sustains an alliance with the rest of the human sciences and remains responsive to its own social-historical context. Although genuinely metaphysical knowledge is no longer the rightful province of philosophical speculation, Habermas still cleaves in his own way to what Adorno once called ‘metaphysics at the moment of its fall.’ In our capacity for rational communication and in our appeal to a morality that leaves no one behind, there lies (in Habermas’s phrase) ‘a moment of unconditionality.’ While it lacks the prestige of a metaphysical absolute, it still bears a trace of the older idealism. Habermas calls it ‘an absolute that has become fluid as a critical procedure.’ Mundane reason, in other words, isn’t wholly mundane: In its modest commitment to rational argumentation, it keeps alive the universalizing impulse of the monotheistic religions when it strives to break free of its own conditions and ‘points beyond all particular forms of life.’

Peter Gordon, "A Lion in Winter," - Interesting review of a recent biography of Jürgen Habermas.
On Teaching Critical Thinking
I believe that the problem is not what is taught in schools, but how it is taught. It is not enough to simply offer curriculum about the ills of racism, homophobia, or bullying, and then expect lasting results from students who are entrenched in cultural beliefs that are reinforced by society. How can it be a surprise that a number of Americans lean toward authoritarian ideals when, according to Marzano Learning Sciences Center, an educational consulting and research group located in West Palm Beach, Florida, 58 percent of class time in K-12 schools is used for lecture with the teacher delivering content? Or that a number of Americans choose to ignore facts and reason when only 6 percent of class time is used for cognitively complex tasks? In a 2012 Center for American Progress student survey, one third of American 12th-graders said they engaged in class discussions only two times a month or less, suggesting that the majority of 17- and 18-year-old American public-school students (young adults coming upon voting age) rarely spend time engaging in dialogue during the school day. The current state of American politics is not surprising when the country’s youngest citizens are given few opportunities to engage in critical thinking and discussion. In order to counteract these trends, it is essential for educators to provide exploratory opportunities for students to not only think about the experiences of other people, but to also challenge their own inherent belief systems through experiential learning.

"Can Morality Be Taught?" -
On Lo and Behold
I deeply regret the fact that deep critical thinking and imaginative thinking, creative thinking, is lost. In my opinion computers, and in some sense the internet, are the worst enemy of deep critical thinking. Youth of today are using machines to basically replace their examination of the things they are observing. They don’t understand what they’re looking at or what they’re hearing, or what they’re learning. They depend upon the internet to tell them and decipher it. They look at numbers instead of ideas. They fail to understand concepts and this is a problem... Whether we use science or ancient Greek or philosophy, it’s those tools that are important. Those are the things that people are going to be able to use in the future. The actual information that we learn in school won’t be important. Because it will be dwarfed by the information that’s coming out on the internet every single day.
— Chapter IX. The Internet of Me

Werner Herzog, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World - This is an interesting commentary on digital life today by a masterful documentary film maker. This chapter in the film focuses on the need to rethink education, shifting it to analytical and critical thinking skills.
On Gutenberg
And so, though he had not invented movable type, if Gutenberg is to be credited with anything it must be that he made it work—that aided by the comparatively economical Latin alphabet he systematically tackled each aspect of a finicky, delicate process until he had perfected it. If calligraphic ink did not meet his needs, he would look elsewhere; if embossed characters were too costly to cut individually, he would find a way to produce them in bulk; and if a firm hand was necessary to get the best impression of the printed page, he would choose tools and materials that could withstand that pressure. Johannes Gutenberg was not the father of printing so much as its midwife.

Keith Houstan, "The Prints and the Pauper" -