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September 27, 2008


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Wow, how do you produce such dense posts with this frequency? This peony is surely on some secret fertilizer. :)

On the question—Is history progressive?—I would say that the question itself is absurd. Progress towards what? Progress can be objectively measured only against an established, or agreed upon, purpose or end. Else it is meaningless to talk about progress. In this respect, I too am not a Hegelian.

But has there been progress in human self-knowledge? My answer today is a qualified yes — qualified because this progress is evident only among the few, not so much the masses. The best minds today know more about their human nature and their place in the cosmos than their yesteryear counterparts. This is largely because self-knowledge, besides relying of experience and reason, must also incorporate the insights of science — and there is clear progress in science.

I agree that university education is turning more "useful" the world over. Academia may be in decline but I wonder if the masses are getting less "humanities exposure" than a century ago.

Well, you know what they say about fertilizer :)

Actually, Namit, I think you bring up an interesting point. Just as a hunch, I would guess that as you suggest the masses are in fact being more (not less) exposed to the humanties in total numbers. Because more people today are being educated at the university level and because among those greater numbers, there still are some willing to take up less econimically efficient or lucrative studies.

Also, while I think the professors are probably feeling more pressure to be "useful" than professors of times past, still I believe that a decent education in the humanities is still very much available to those who see it-- though I seem to recall reading somewhere that your alma mater had really cut back on those liberal arts courses... (!)

Regarding the other part of your comment. I agree and I disagree.
I agree that science is progressing. And, I agree that science can help us gain an understanding into ourselves. But, do I think we are more clear about what it is to be human? That is, do I think our self-knowledge is developing? Well, I think we are perhaps more clear about certain parts of our being (including those parts informed by our scientific understanding) But, no, I guess I do not see our overall knowledge regarding ourselves to be developing...If it were, we should be seeing a state of affairs where humans are happier and more self-fulfilled than ever before-- because if we were really becoming more clear about ourselves, wouldn't that help us flourish?

Right now, I am listening to Colin Thubron's book on tape, In the Shadow of the Silk Road and absoutely love it. There is a scene between the author and a "charming young lady" in which the charming young lady asks (as charming young ladies do) "What period of time would you like to have been born in?" And Thubron answers, "well that depends if I was rich or poor" and then he asks her, to which she responds, "that depends on whether I was a man or a woman."

That's kind of how I feel. I wouldn't necessarily choose now to live in as, even with all scientific developing... it's almost like me choosing between Japan or America or you choosing between India or America. Neither is categorically superior to the other and depending on which culture you live in, different aspects of your self would be accentuated. This is where I think I have problems with Dreyfus and Heidegger too, by the way, because I do not say the same things, think the same things or dream the same things-- as in each place, a very different side of my Self is accentuated. And yet they are both me.

I guess the most I would agree is that the best minds of today know more about certain aspects of our nature and our place in the cosmos. Would you agree to that?

By the way, in which time would you live in if you could? Today?

Yep, I would choose the present. Call me a wuss but I can't imagine living in a time without anesthesia. :) All in all, I'd say that many of us live in a golden age par excellence in human history (though the future may well be quite different).

However, I would—if I could—readily sign up for visits back in time. If I were allowed only, say, four visits, I would choose the Buddha's India, classical Greece, Tang China, and Abbasid Baghdad. How about you?

On the "humanities exposure", I think it also comes to the masses today via additional avenues (besides universities, where it's in decline, including at my alma mater - you found that old post!). Such avenues include movies, museums, theater, radio, TV, the Internet, etc. Who knows how the tradeoff will play out over time.

Let me respond to the fourth para in your comment. About progress in human self-knowledge, I would say that since this progress is evident only among the few, by definition it doesn't help the wider society with happiness or fulfillment. And you're right that there is accretive self-knowledge that comes via science, but there are also other aspects of it outside science, which I think have progressed (and here you seem to have reservations). I believe this because today we know more about more human cultures past and present, our range of experiences is wider, we have witnessed and studied more political and social experiments (and deduced key observations about human nature), we have considered a wider range of answers to questions like: how to live? what to believe in? what to strive for? Our best history writing is better than ever before, an indicator of advancing self-knowledge, if only among the few. So the question is: What aspects of self-knowledge do you think were likely more evolved in the past (over that of our best minds today)?

Brilliant response as usual! Four trips? Well, of course Tang China and Abassid Baghdad. Al-Andalus would be a must.....and the last, well, perhaps late silk road times Ladakh (which I shall be emailing you about later).

So, that's the thing, though. I do not see human beings as becoming more clear on their nature, in any way happier or more fulfilled than they were in the past. I don't argue the opposite, but rather just say-- I have not seen any real proof. While there may be more choices (like cereal boxes at Cosco)-- I am not sure humanity is any clearer or not as to how to live or what to believe in...

And to your question, well, it is kind of like the America versus Japan versus India thing. Different places or different times I think (because of the collective understanding of being and shared cultural values) would bring out different aspects of my Self. Don't you feel different in India to America? And neither version of yourself is particularly more evolved, right? That is how I imagine it would feel to go back in time...

Yes, different places evoke different thoughts in me, and, like you, I find that very valuable. Would I expect the same going back in time? Surely yes, provided I could experience it with my own Self, as I do going between India and America (rather than wishing to be born in another time, implying a wholly different Self).

But I hear you: there is an area of human self-knowledge that varies across space and time and which stands beyond the notion of progress.

I think you make an excellent point. Today, our universities don't round us out in the same way as they did traditionally - at least not educationally. Great literature, great philosophy, great art - they don't pay the bills. And so the literature loving undergrad must either suck it up and go for a business major, or enjoy his/her humanities education and then go to grad school for law, business, engineering, etc.

Of course, one thing to consider is that for most of history, higher education was for the elite - and that usually meant wealthy. One could afford to read deeply into Shakespeare or Moliere for that matter. One was educated to be a gentlemen (it was mostly men).

Today, increasingly, universities are an extension of secondary education. Students go as a matter of course because jobs require degrees and, at least in America, the university setting is a transition to adulthood. College is more a rite of passage and maturing process than it is an education.

So, perhaps it's the very function of a university that has changed - and that the "slaves" of middle and lower classes now go to universities whereas before, only the wealthy "freemen" attended...?

I read this in the NYTimes a few weeks ago & Eric's comment made me think you might find it interesting…


Hi Eric, I really liked your last post on your blog about entertainment and the media. As you know, I do think our underlying understanding of being in the West is based on Efficiency (seeing things, people and ourselves as resources) I wrote about it at length here:

It's not categorically a bad thing either. For example, our modern way of experiencing the Self as something by which we should make the most of our potential (as resouces really!) or live life to the fullest--- these are not categorically bad things. But as certain things become stressed, others (by virtue of their inefficiency) become less valued. I think education or the "gentlemanly pursuits" as you hinted are perhaps one area. Ceremonies, the seasons, anything elaborate requiring much input with less obvious output would perhaps be another place. For a person who thrives on these inefficient pursuits-- well, they probably should relocate-- or travel back in time like Namit.

Where does entertainment fit into this though?

Because I couldn't agree more with what you wrote. In fact, this has been on my mind since I spent last month working on that philosophy paper translation.


Welsch-- I'm actually not clear whether he is speaking about an ontogy or mereley our aesthetic values-- but he hs written at length about what he calls the superficial and also the more deep-seated aestheticization of our society. (His essay is on his website). I copied a quote below, but basically his point is that our entire society has been re-organized around this concept of amusement, virtual experience, and prettification (Disneylandification). From the news to what from japan seems like an almost bizarre focus on weekend "fun"...I always call it the narration of what I did last weekend.

Regarding just turning off the TV, though. I couldn't agree more. I got rid of my TV in university and went for well over 10 years without watching it. After Adonis was born, though, at night I just felt too exhausted to even focus on a book so bought a TV (it's so small though, smaller than my computer screen-- the cable guy looked at me in disbelief, informing me, "this is not a TV but a monitor").

It quite literally sucked me in. It took me almost 5 years to realize that it really was having a deleterious effect on me (really!)-- so I am back to NHK-only and a very ocassional old movie.

For the asian history carnival Post, I watched a bit of TV when I was in LA just to be able to discuss Olympic coverage-- and was I ever stunned!!! I wrote about it in Part 1 of the Carnival. Many of the Internet and online magazine sites are still re-hashing the Olympics and China too...

Anyway, i kind of wondered if this Will to Efficiency and this over-riding stress on amusement could be tied together. Maybe it doesn't have to fit together, but I wish it could...

My own undergraduate degree in philosophy did not pay the bill. Indeed, it left me in a real bind after college-- hence my flight to Indonesia → Japan...

Here's Welsch:
In surface aestheticization the most superficial aesthetic aesthitic value dominates: pleasure, amusement, enjoyment without consequence. This animatory trend today reaches far beyond the aesthetic enshroudment of individual everyday items-- beyond the styling of objects and experience-loaded ambiances. It is increasingly determining the form of our culture as a whole. Experience and entertainment have become the guidelines in recent years. A society of leisure and experience is served by an expanding culture of festivals and fun. And whilst some of the all too strident offshoots of aestheticization, or singular aspects of the cosmetics of reality, might raise a smile, with its extension to culture as a whole, this is no longer a laughing matter.

Dear MW

And this for you!

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