Tag Archives: culture

Putting Descartes Before the Hordes

He was a lawyer who never had a client—but he argued the case for rationalism, inveighing against the theretofore vague definitions of knowledge and truth, in his voluminous correspondence with the great thinkers and theologians of his age.

He joined the army of a Dutch prince at the age of 22—but he eschewed a military career to devote himself to the rigorous pursuit of knowledge through the study and application of mathematics and philosophy. He was French by birth—yet he died in Sweden after living most of his life in Holland.

Anomalies abound in the life of René Descartes, a man who, on the one hand, stands as a milestone on mankind’s long road to enlightenment and reason, and on the other, has had much of his life’s work disputed and derided.

The Procedural Rule

Rejecting the scholastic methods of his philosophical forebears, who sought truth by contrasting and comparing the views of accepted authorities, Descartes posited in “Meditations on First Philosophy” that a “firm and permanent structure” of knowledge requires building “anew from the foundation.” He determined to rid himself of presuppositions, ignore all but incontrovertible facts, and discount any evidence supplied by his senses.

To the extent that the use of this truth-seeking methodology—his Procedural Rule—succeeded in advancing the studies of optics, analytical geometry, and the theory of equations, Descartes shall be forever ensconced in the pantheon of intellectual giants. That his main contribution to philosophy was to establish the certainty of uncertainty suggests that his quest left him, as its chronicle left so many of his skeptical descendants, personally unfulfilled.

However readily one might accept Descartes’ process for challenging conventional wisdom by application of his Procedural Rule—and the fact that rationalism as a philosophical denomination was born with his “Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason”—it is clear that the “father of modern philosophy” was himself stymied by the limits of his senses and intellect. “[It] is not in my power to arrive at the knowledge of any truth,” he finally admitted.

Descartes was quick to add, however, that his Procedural Rule could ensure that he would never give “credence to any false thing.” Common sense, the sciences, mathematics, logic: In no domain is there indubitable truth provable by human methodologies, because of the undependable nature of our senses.

Yet pervading all of these realms is the consciousness of man, the inquiring and doubting self that is the only solid, certain, provable entity in Descartes’ dualistic universe, to wit: Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am.

Failing His Own Test

René Descartes, an extraordinarily gifted man, brought his formidable mind to bear on the profound questions of many disciplines, but through a peculiarly human, undisciplined application of his own methodology arrived at any number of specious, spurious, even silly conclusions.

For instance, the notion that “animal spirits” in human blood interact with “thinking substances” of the brain to create a nerve-channel charge that enables the limbs—was this fanciful idea put through the Procedural Rule wringer? And did the great Renatus Cartesius display intellectual integrity and dedication to objective truth by abandoning his belief in a Copernican universe when it was pronounced heretical by the Catholic Church?

So where, outside of his analytical analog to Euclidian construction, or the fundamental law of reflection, or his inspired though embryonic assertions of the undulatory theory of light, is the consistency, the unassailability, of Descartes’ philosophy?

A Place of Primacy and Permanence

The man who shook “foundations to [bring] the downfall of the rest of the edifice”; the man who was first to challenge categorically the perceptions, assumptions, and sensations upon which entire classical belief systems were founded; the man who enshrined along with the doubt of the objective the certainty of the subjective; the man who extrapolated from that subjective certainty the existence of a God apprehended by reason—this man does, indubitably, occupy a place of primacy and permanence in the history of philosophy.

Today, many of his great and varied contributions to our knowledge of geometry, optics, anatomy, and mathematics—not to mention our knowledge of knowledge itself—are unknown to most people on the planet. Yet someday, perhaps, the great René Descartes will be more widely recognized for his grand, passionate, provocative reasoning.

Perhaps he will even be as revered and respected as modern celebrity philosophers Eckhart Tolle, Bono, Bill Cosby, or Tom Cruise. It could happen; I don’t know.

I only know that I doubt it.

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Just Because It’s Commercial Doesn’t Mean It’s Not Art

“Art,” said Modeste Mussorgsky, 19th century Russian composer, “is not an end in itself, but a means of addressing humanity.”

If you are an art student drawing close to graduation, and you balk at the prospect of selling out to corporate America, you have options. If you are independently wealthy, you never have to please anyone but yourself and can build your own museum. If you’re not rich, and still wish to retain your “artistic purity,” you can cajole wealthy patrons (the 21st century versions of the Medicis) or apply for government grants.

Frankly, if you wish to keep the taint of money, what the Bible calls “filthy lucre,” from your art, then your best bet is to have as little as possible. A vow of poverty, from either a Marxist political perspective or a Christian monastic one, may be indicated.

The eternal tension

Seriously, there is an eternal tension between art as “an end in itself” and art that addresses and connects with people. The latter includes art that connects with a marketing director because she thinks it will help sell her product. Whether you are an illustrator, sculptor, painter or filmmaker, you will have to confront the issue of “commercial art vs. fine art” and draw the appropriate lines in your own life. You should begin by challenging your preconceptions. In fact, you might want to make a lifelong habit of this.

Richard Rothstein, a photographer and writer living in Manhattan, brings the historical perspective. “I find it extremely amusing that commercial art of past civilizations and ages is now held in very high regard as fine art. Murals and carvings that promoted products and services in ancient Greece and Rome are now standing as fine art in great museums.”

The commercial/fine art dichotomy is false, says Rothstein. “Bad art is common, bad in composition, emotion, passion. But to divide art into ‘commercial’ versus ‘fine’ strikes me as arrogant and pompous.” One of the towering figures of modern art helps to prove his point. “Picasso churned out art like Ford churned out Model Ts. He was a genius at commercial art, building a brand that would make him very rich. Was he a commercial or a fine artist?”

Starvation vs. survival?

“The difference between commercial art and fine art,” says Joe Nyaggah, “is the difference between survival and starvation.” A 2008 graduate of the renowned arts program at California State University, Fullerton, Nyaggah is a designer who roams widely across the Web engaging in discussions on the social and professional roles of artists. He believes that what most people mean by “fine artist” is someone who creates works “that are only appreciated by a select, eccentric few.” Commercial artists, on the other hand, “execute on demand” rather than “on a whim,” and learn to make a living with their talent.

Nyaggah has little patience for talented people who posture as “starving artists” with moral superiority. “Hunger builds character, yes,” he says, “but money builds so much more. Houses, for instance, that you and your family can live in.”

LifeTech: Cultural Issues in Tech Adoption

iPad with flags of the world

The Apple iPad is not just translated into other languages, but other cultures, as well.

Tech users worldwide bring their cultural biases to the use of new technologies. Even product safety standards are largely based on a nation or region’s reigning sociocultural values. For global companies—what firm isn’t, what with the Internet, FedEx, and consumer electronics with components from different continents?—understanding these cultural issues is essential. Working toward that understanding along with a growing number of consumer-tech firms are researchers, anthropologists, and (yes) philosophers.

Formed from culture and tradition, a people’s collective mental model defines everything, including color. In China, black borders mean a pictured person is deceased, so the first digital photo frames with thick black bezels—as on the original plasma displays—did not do well there. (White has other issues.) Everything from design and production through marketing and sales must pass the culture test, lest a product fail because people don’t “get it”—or worse, because something is silly or offensive. The classic, possibly apocryphal example? Citroën sold few cars in Holland because its name in Dutch means “lemon.”

IBM, True Blue Trailblazer

Making sure to consider all “society-based cultural factors…in the design of technology” is difficult, according to Geert Hofstede. Hofstede first studied, then strategized the international spread of IBM’s business in the 1960s and 1970s, back when “computer rental” meant paying by the hour to use what was essentially a refrigerator-sized tape deck (with no spell-check). At least IBM’s management team was smart enough to put even smarter academic researchers on the job. Hofstede developed the landmark four dimensional framework for adapting technology to particular cultures (later upped to six dimensions with long-term orientation and indulgence).

Writing in 1980, Hofstede posited four adversarial principles at work across human cultures:

  • Weak vs. strong uncertainty avoidance. Some cultures, such as Greece and Japan, place great importance on avoiding ambiguity, especially in interpersonal relations. This explains the Japanese preference for video-calls, which they make in the billions on every phone, PC, and tablet available. Video-calls require being seen, but also positively ID the caller. In Scandinavia and Hong Kong, on the other hand, more ambiguity is tolerated and video-calls are less numerous.
  • Individualism vs. collectivism. The UK and U.S. cultures idealize self-sufficiency and independence, whereas Venezuela and Colombia are proudly collectivist. While people use laptops in the U.S. for a variety of personal and/or corporate reasons, a marketing campaign in Colombia would focus on group collaboration. Traits such as confidence and creativity develop in individualist cultures, while cooperation and conformity are strongly encouraged in collectivist ones.
  • Small vs. large power distance. A large “power distance” exists in cultures like India and the Philippines, where the privileged classes use all the latest tech while the powerless remain “unplugged” on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder. Austria, Sweden, and other Western nations—where high-tech devices are commodities that even “the poor” can afford—have “small” power distances.
  • Masculinity vs. femininity. Cultures that are task-oriented, and emphasize material success, are called “masculine.” Ones that are people-oriented, and value quality of life? They’re “feminine.” Such previous markers as the American female’s mythical affinity for frilly pink things are in flux, however: Apple’s MacBook line now includes “girly” light-as-Air models that guys seem to like just fine.