Satyagraha

Cultural Psychology

Archive for the ‘Scholarship’ Category

A Beautiful Mind: Addison’s Religious Essays

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fancy_dropcase_READERS of this blog may download a free copy of my new book, a collection of religious and metaphysical essays by Joseph Addison which appeared in the The Spectator in 1711 and 1712. These are certain to delight and edify.  Addison is well known as one of the most skilled prose stylists in the English language; but few today are aware of the sublime quality of his religious essays.

Addison’s influence on both the English and American minds is considerable, yet largely unacknowledged today.

Download the ebook in pdf format here.

addison-book-cover

MR 01

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The Emersonian ‘Universal Mind’ and Its Vital Importance

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IT SEEMS I’m always trying to get people to read Emerson. Why? Because I’m convinced his writings contain solutions to many of today’s urgent social problems.

Perhaps Emerson’s most important contribution is a concept that he refers to throughout his works, calling various names, but most often Universal Mind. This term invites a number of unintended meanings, tending to obscure Emerson’s important message.

Universal Mind may at first glance seem a vague, new-agey reference to some cosmic super-intelligence, but that’s not what Emerson means.. The concept is more commonplace, down-to-earth and practical. It could perhaps better be called the Human Nature, Universal Human Nature, or Man. For now, though, I’ll stick with Emerson’s term, but put it in italics instead of capital letters to demystify it. What, then, does Emerson mean by the universal mind of humanity?

It is, basically, all human beings share a common repertoire of mental abilities. Just as insects or lizards of a particular species share a common natural endowment of behavioral instincts, so all humans have a common natural set of mental skills, aptitudes, and concepts. (In fact, sometimes uses the word Instinct instead of universal mind.)

For example, consider a basic axiom of plane geometry: that two parallel lines never intersect. Once this was explained to you in high school, at which point you said, “Oh, I see that. It’s common sense.” This is the Emersonian universal mind in action. Every other geometry student has the same response. The ability to ‘see’ this is or ‘get it’ part of our common mental ability as human beings.

And the same can be said of hundreds, thousands, or more particular elements of human knowledge. These cover many different domains, including basic principles of mathematics and logic, artistic and aesthetic judgments (all human beings admire a beautiful sunset, all see the Taj Mahal as sublime and beautiful), moral principles (what is just or fair?), and religion (e.g., that God exists and deserves our thanks and praise.)

By the universal mind, then, Emerson merely means that plain fact that all or virtually all members of the human race share a vast repertoire of common mental abilities, concepts, judgments, and so on. This is not wild metaphysical speculation. It is an empirically obvious fact. Without this implied assumption of universal mind, for example, criminal laws and courts would be pointless. The mere fact that we hold people accountable for criminal misdeeds implies a shared set of assumptions about right and wrong, accountability for ones actions, etc.

Now it is true that one may, if one wants, elaborate the principle of a universal human mind and add all sorts of metaphysical speculations. Some do. They see this universal mind as deriving from the principle of all men being made in God’s image and likeness. These are important considerations, but they are, in a sense, secondary ones. More important is that is, it is important that all people — theists and atheists, metaphysicians and empiricists alike — can agree on the existence of the universal human character. Said another way, it is vital that we not let disagreements over metaphysics obscure or distract us from this more important consensus that there is a universal man or universal mind.

Why? Because this concept — something we all assume implicitly — has been insufficiently examined and developed at a collective level. It needs to become a topic of public discourse and scientific study, because its implications are enormous. We’ve only just begun this work as a species, as evidenced by the fact that we as yet haven’t even agreed even on a term! It’s always been with us, but only lately have be become fully aware of it. This realization is a milestone in the evolution of human consciousness and society.

Maybe I’ll write a followup that discusses the specific ways in which this concept, fully developed, may advantageously affect our current social conditions. For now I’ll simply list a few relevant categories where it applies:

Human Dignity. Each person has vast potential and therefore vast dignity. Each carries, as it were, the wisdom and the sum of potential scientific, artistic, moral, and religious capabilities of the entire species. Any person has the innate hardware, and with just a little training could learn to discern the technical and aesthetic difference between a Botticelli painting from a Raphael, a Rembrandt from a Rubens. Each human being is sensitive to the difference between a Mozart piano sonata and one by Beethoven. And so in Science. Any person could understand the Theory of Relativity suitably explained. Or differential equations. Or the physics of black holes.

Consider this thought experiment. If the human race made itself extinct, but aliens rescued one survivor, that one person could be taught, almost by reading alone, to recover the sum of all scientific, moral, and artistic insights of the species! The entirety of our collective abilities would live on in one person. And, more, that would be true regardless of which person were the survivor. So much is the vast ability and dignity of each human being.

Education. It exceeds what we currently know to assert that all possible concepts already exist fully developed, though latent, in each person. But we can assert that all human beings are hard-wired in certain ways to enable to form these concepts when supplied with suitable data. In either case, the implication is that education does not instill knowledge, so much as elicits the pre-existing aptitudes. Further, in keeping with the preceding point, the universal mind means that no person is limited in their ability to learn. Each person is a Genius. We should do our utmost to make this potentiality a fact for as many as possible. Education should be lifelong, not something relegated to the first 18 years of life.

Arts are not the peculiar luxury of the elite upper class. Shakespeare, Mozart, and Raphael are the common heritage of all. We need to take much more seriously the basic human right to have each ones divine artistic nature flower.

Economics. Today economics has become the main frame of reference for conceptualizing all human progress. We must rethink this, and give greater allowance for seeing the flourishing of the universal man as our goal. Nobody can be happy with vast potentials unfulfilled. It is not the way of nature. We must get it clear in our thinking, individually and collectively, that the business of society is to empower the individual.

Social discourse. All solutions to social ills already exist latent in Man’s heart. The phrase ‘common dreams’ is more than a euphemism. We do have common ideals, great ones. Our social discourse should aim for mutual insight and self-discovery. Answers are within: one’s within oneself; but also, because of the universal mind, ones within the other as well.  Instead of argument and debate we should aim for dialectic: a joint uncovering of ideals and guiding principles and raising of consciousness.

Government. To much of modern political philosophy assumes the principle of nanny government. People are wiser than governments. We should insist that the first priority of government is to make itself unnecessary. Liberate the universal man — the ultimate moral force on earth — and see how much things improve without government intervention!

Foreign policy. All men are at the core alike. All respond to the same appeals to Reason and Morals. All have equal worth and dignity. All are designed for cooperation, friendship, and love. Any foreign policy which denies these realities does not conform with nature and cannot succeed.

As noted, Emerson’s discussion of the universal mind is found scattered throughout his works. Emerson was not systematic, but nevertheless his message comes across very clear. Some of his works most relevant this theme are Self Reliance, Intellect and Art (Essays, First Series), The Poet and Politics (Essays, Second Series), and Genius and Religion (Early Lectures).

First draft

References

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Centenary Edition. Ed. Edward Waldo Emerson. Boston, 1903–1904.
Online edition (UMich): http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/emerson/

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume 2. Ed. Stephen E. Whicher and Robert E. Spiller. Cambridge, MA, 1964.
http://books.google.com/books?id=F4Xfp8HbfxIC<a?

Technology Tools for the Modern Scholar

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monk1

Lately I’ve been reading an essay by the Christian Transcendentalist and anti-war writer, Caleb Sprague Henry, titled, The Importance of Elevating the Intellectual Spirit of the Nation (1837).

It’s an excellent essay, and supports my growing conviction that people were more literate and intellectually sophisticated in the 19th century than they are today, and that those of us who are interested in elevating culture should spend more time reading 19th century works like this one.

I’ll devote another post to a general discussion of his essay.  At present the important point is his suggestion that (1) the work of scholars is vitally important in preserving culture, and, (2) inasmuch as scholars seldom receive sufficient support from the public at large or governments, we need to help each other — building up a Brotherhood of Scholars, to use his phrase.

In view of this, the goal of this post is for me to share with other modern scholars some of the technological tools that I’ve found most helpful.  By ‘scholars’, of course, I don’t mean people who do research for selfish reasons — money, glory, or academic tenure.  But rather for those true scholars who feel genuinely called to this work for moral and spiritual reasons:  for God’s glory, and to help humanity.  (If to write such a thing as the last sentence seems incredibly ‘old school’ by today’s standards, that is indicative of the very problem we face today: a disconnection of society from spiritual values.)

Nevertheless, anyone is more than welcome to benefit from the suggestions offered here.

In rough order of descending value, here are my favorite technological tools for scholarship:

Google Books

When I learn of a new book of possible interest, the first thing I do is check Google Books to see if it is previewable there.  If it is an older book, and I’m only interested in a chapter, I click the gear icon on the upper right to see if full text is available.  If so, I cut and paste the plain text into a Word document (unfortunately this can only be done a few pages at a time) so I have my own file.  I highlight when I read, so simply reading in the Google Books preview window isn’t a good option.

If the book is new, then you can’t view plain text, and can only preview page images. In this case I use the next tool.

ABBY Screenshot Reader

This is very simple tool that (1) takes a snapshot of any area of your computer screen, and (2) applies optical character recognition (OCR) to convert any text in the image to editable text.  So, for example, I preview a page of a book in Google Books, press a hotkey to invoke Screenshot Reader, capture and translate the text, and paste it into a Microsoft Word document for later reading.  I might do this for several pages or even an entire chapter, if that’s available for previewing.

Back to older books. If I want to download an older book in pdf format, I usually don’t do this from Google Books.  The reason is that Google Books pdf files are not editable.  So instead I use the next website.

Archive.org

Many older books I want have been scanned and uploaded to archive.org, where they can be downloaded.  Books are available in several formats, including epub and pdf.  Unlike Google Books, these pdf files are usually editable (which means that you can highlight and copy passages from them).

Amazon Books

If it’s a newer book I want, then I may need to buy it.  Often I buy used versions.  A handy feature of Amazon is that it includes a link to used copies of a given title.  I pick a used version that looks promising (good price, not beat-up, reliable vendor), and Amazon centralizes the ordering and billing.

Robert E. Kennedy Library, CalPoly University

This is my nearest university library.  While I have my issues with the CalState University System generally, I’m not one to ‘bite the hand that feeds me.’  As a member of the community (i.e., non-student and non-faculty), I’m allowed to read books in the library — and, importantly, to use the computers for scanning books.  This is a very generous policy, and not all universities, not even all public universities, are so considerate.

Sometimes I bring in a book I’ve bought, or sometimes take a book off the shelves there — and use the large-bed scanners and OCR software to produce an editable pdf version.  By this point it might be apparent to readers that I do not read paper books anymore.  For me, anything worth reading is worth excerpting from — and that’s much easier to do with a pdf file.

I can also use the library computers to download reprints from JSTOR.

The Great Courses

The Great Courses is a great idea.  They offer university-level courses on video or mp3 files.  The mp3 versions especially are a real bargain. I’ve previously listed what I consider to be some of their better courses here.

Automobile mp3 FM transmitter

Want to play an mp3 lecture in your car, but don’t have a port built into the car’s audio system?  No problem.  Buy one of these babies, plug it into your cigarette lighter, and you’re good to go.  It has a built-in transmitter that sends a signal to your car radio.  You supply the mp3 file(s) via a an SD card or USB memory stick that plugs into the unit.

These are great.  The only problem is that the quality varies.  Some put out a weak signal, which produces a lot of static when listening.  To be honest, I buy cheapo imports two or three at a time, and just use the one that works best.

ABBY PDF Transformer

Sometimes I end up with a pdf file that is not editable (e.g., from Google Books.)  In that case I process the file with ABBY PDF Transformer.  This performs OCR and produces an editable pdf file (or MS Word document if you prefer).  However, if you have a new version of Adobe Acrobat, that will do the same thing.

IVONA Text-to-Speech

For a while I experimented with text-to-speech software to convert scanned books and typed documents into synthesized speech.  (I could then, e.g., listen to a book in my car.)  This was an interesting experiment, though eventually I found even the best speech synthesis (the technology is quite amazing) kind of boring to listen to.  It’s probably better for technical material than literature.  Nevertheless, I wanted to mention this as an option.

YouTube

Of course, no list would be complete without YouTube.  There’s a ton of educational and edifying material at YouTube. Just search for “documentaries” to get started.

Written by John Uebersax

March 6, 2013 at 12:15 am