The History of Thought with Eric Gerlach
Let’s say that something is merely metaphorical if it is simply similar to something but not identical, as the Nyaya logicians of ancient India would say. That means that if I act like a cat, but I am not a cat, it can be said, metaphorically, “Eric is a cat,” as I act like one, but it can’t be said literally AND truthfully that I am a cat, as said. As Saussure the Swiss linguist could say, in French or German, the word “cat” doesn’t look like a cat or sound like a cat, nor does the word nap sound like a nap or look like one, but a catnap, a nap taken by a cat or me later, does look like a napping cat, whether or not I am a cat. This means that when I, a human, take a catnap, I am literally taking a nap, but I am metaphorically taking a catnap. Does this mean when I nap, “Eric is taking a catnap,” is both literally AND metaphorically true in different ways? Can the two be complimentary, or are they exclusive?
If I am a cat, a catnap looks entirely like a cat taking a nap, and if I am not a cat, then it looks like a nap, which I am literally taking, but I am only like a cat, not actually or literally one, as said. So: If I take a catnap with my cat, and you say, “They are taking a catnap together,” did you say something that was metaphorically true for me, but literally true for the cat, or is it both literal and metaphorical for both of us? Does it feel metaphorical to say it about me, and feel literal to say it about the cat? Does it feel or apply to me and the cat differently? Does it depend how it feels to say it, or does it depend on how it is said, and to whom? Nothing seems clear here, no matter how literally or carefully we speak.
Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849) was born in Boston to a pair of poor actors who were dead before Poe was three. John Allan, a wealthy tobacco and dry-goods merchant from Scotland, and Frances Allan, who had herself been an orphan, adopted Poe as a wealthy but childless couple, as Poe’s older brother and younger sister went to live with other families. Poe grew up in a life of luxury in the antebellum South playing games with enslaved black children on his family’s lands. When Poe was six the Allans took him to live in London for five years, where Poe got fine marks in fancy schools before returning to Richmond, Virginia.
When Poe was 16 John Allan’s uncle died and Poe’s adoptive father became far more wealthy, inheriting three large plantations and many slaves worth many millions today. Poe began acting out, taking long midnight adventures, wandering with friends, getting into trouble and annoying Allan with pranks, such as dressing up as a ghost to frighten guests at dinner parties. Oddly, the Klu Klux Klan would dress up as ghosts to frighten poor black freed slaves, not wealthy white socialites, decades after the American Civil War, which Poe didn’t live to see. Poe’s older brother Henry visited, who grew up in Boston and worked as a sailor, a drunken sailor as the Irish sea shanty of Poe’s day goes, carousing dangerously about town with stories of the sea.
At 18, Poe enrolled at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 and still under construction in 1826, and there was quiet sadness there when Jefferson himself died later that year, freeing seven slaves but selling hundreds more off as part of his estate. Poe racked up drunken gambling debts, and when Poe came home after his first year in college Allan told him he would no longer support the education Poe was wasting. Poe learned that his love had become engaged, but not to him, as her father had intercepted all of his letters and married her off to someone else. Poe denounced Allan and set sail with his friend up the East Coast, visiting his brother on their way to Boston. Poe told his creditors he had crossed the Atlantic to fight for Christian Greek independence from the Islamic Ottoman Empire in the name of Western Civilization to dodge his debts. Poe published a book of poetry and enlisted in the army, and was almost shipwrecked off Cape Cod in a storm.
Poe felt he had to leave the army to become a great writer, but he was accepted to West Point, the first and foremost American military academy, where he got high marks in math and French. Realizing that he could not rise in the ranks without wealth, as upper officers all had much and Allan still refused to share his with his wayward adopted son, Poe left. His fellow cadets gave him money to publish a book of his poetry, which he did and dedicated to them. Poe moved to Baltimore to live with his grandmother, aunt and brother, who now, like Poe, was a poet as well as a drunk, and also dying.
As Poe sought a career in the 1830s, new forms of printing, production, transportation, finance and education created a boom in mass-print, including books, newspapers and magazines, and Poe became an aspiring writer, poet, editor and critic as American audiences grew along with factories, trains and cities. Poe worked in Baltimore, Richmond, Philadelphia and New York, all the major American publishing centers. Between 1820 and 1840 the population of New York City doubled, and immigration increased six-fold. Andrew Jackson’s presidency of 1828 meant a new era of party machine politics, mass media, and the Trail of Tears for Cherokees and other natives killed or forced from their lands, with debates in print about genocide, slavery, savages and civilization.
In British common law, retreat until one’s back is against the wall is typically required before killing in self defense, but American law is far more permissive with proactive violence in defense of life and livelihood, like the famous gunfight at the OK Corral, called stand your ground by some still today. Many Europeans, including Hitler himself, grew up reading and watching violent adventure stories about cowboys and “Indians”. In an age of lynching and anti-immigration, Poe knew anti-black racists were also anti-Irish, so he claimed his family was German. City folks, afraid of many in their own cities, wanted to read sensational stories about theft, murder and rape, imagining details beyond what newspapers were rabidly printing, the sorts of crimes at the center of each of Poe’s three detective stories.
Poe is one of the inventors of the short story, the thrilling tale that hooks audiences in a few short, digestible pages, and he is said by some to have invented the murder-mystery, the horror story, and is one of the first to write science fiction. In the 1830s geologists publicly rejected the Biblical account of the earth’s creation, religion was giving way to science and popular culture, and Poe confronted the modern loss of cosmic meaning and afterlife, as found in the beak of Poe’s famous raven, who squawks that the narrator will hold Lenore nevermore as he morns her loss in his luxurious library. Poe entered a newspaper contest for best story with a prize of $100 in 1831 and didn’t win, but the paper published his submission anyway just before Poe’s 23rd birthday. Poe was good at parodying newspaper and magazine stories, using found material and giving it interesting twists.
Poe wanted his stories to be popular, but also the best, to satisfy commercial and critical tastes. Poe wanted to please both the masses and intellectuals with different parts of the same text, and felt sorry for the “demagogue-ridden public,” with publishers thrusting what they want the public to want at everyone. Poe said the magazine was a sign of the times, a digest of condensed information for a public that consumed more, faster, and had more to think about, with many more texts, methods and examples than mere decades ago, so Poe put the greatest amount of thought into the smallest device that worked for the most people. Poe hoped information would soon be even cheaper to get and give, such that new classes of works could be brought to the public, with the independent artist free from depending on others with money, and the humblest given as much attention as the exalted. In some ways Poe would admire the internet, though like most things in life he would probably also find it horrifying.
Poe contributed his Man of the Crowd (1840) to the first issue of Graham’s Magazine, the first magazine to succeed at mass circulation, and the year after his Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841), what many say is the first modern detective story. During the next several years, as Poe wrote his second and third detective stories, The Murder of Marie Roget (1842-3) and The Purloined Letter (1844-5), sequels to his Rue Morgue, he also wrote some of his most treasured stories, including The Masque of the Red Death (1842), The Pit and the Pendulum (1842-3) and The Tell-Tale Heart (1843).
As Poe was publishing his final detective story, with the first two and other tales, only a few years before his death, he complained that magazine writers are often poor and the poor are despised in America more than anywhere else, and that his political views were not represented by any of the present parties. Poe wrote to a friend after the success of his detective tales that they are ingenious, but people think they are more ingenious than they are, and for the author, there is not much genius in the detective “unraveling a web which you yourself have woven for the express purpose of unraveling.”
After only a few creative but troubled years, depressed and tormented “by a demon,” Poe overdosed on laudanum, a tincture of powdered opium that was legal and common for headaches, and became very sick. After a bit of recovery, just as Poe was ready to launch his own magazine and wed his first love, he fell into the hands of thugs who plied him with drink, took him to voting precincts to stack ballots, also common at the time, though not legal, and left him in the street. Poe died after a few days in a hospital, unable to recover.
It is difficult to know what philosophy Poe knew, as he uses the term philosophy often but not the names of philosophers. His Philosophy of Furniture, which he wrote for Burton’s Gentleman’s Quarterly magazine the year before his Rue Morgue, a magazine which hopefully has its own mustache, opens with a fake quote from Hegel, so it isn’t really from Hegel, as Poe uses fake quotations in several stories:
“Philosophy,” says Hegel, “is utterly useless and fruitless, and for this very reason, is the sublimest of all pursuits, the most deserving of our attention, and the most worthy of our zeal” – a somewhat Coleridegy assertion, with a rivulet of deep meaning in a meadow of words. It would be wasting time to disentangle the paradox – and the more so as no one would deny that Philosophy has its merits, and is applicable to an infinity of purposes. There is reason, it is said, in the roasting of eggs, and there is philosophy even in furniture – a philosophy nevertheless which seems to be more imperfectly understood by Americans than by any civilized nation upon the face of the earth.
It is unclear what Hegel Poe may or may not have read, but without checking every page of Hegel, and Poe offers us no source to help, this is likely a fake quote, because Hegel would not say philosophy is useless, but would say it is the sublimest and involves all purposes. Perhaps Poe read some Hegel, and found a river of deep meaning in a meadow of words. Hegel is an impenetrable forest of language for many, with meaning that is far more difficult to extract than roasting eggs, or noticing common things, like American taste. Coleridge, a poet, is compared to a river running within Hegel’s philosophical wording. Poe pays attention to details in decor much as his detective Dupin pays attention to details in clues and the words of witnesses, but also to the feelings he reads, feels and imagines in others. The motives we read and feel in others, behind the words and clues, are much like deep meaning hidden in a meadow of words, and the emotional point an author is making with a piece.
There are several things in this piece, which isn’t actually about furniture much at all, that find their way into Poe’s first detective story, including a hidden motive. Poe values philosophy, science, logic and the mind, but he finds Hegel full of words even if he has meaning, as common things do, which are easier than reading or understanding Hegel. The Daodejing of China says A kingdom should be ruled the way one fries a small fish, with patient attention to detail, which is very similar to roasting eggs philosophically, with consideration. The first English translation of the Daodejing was published in 1868, almost twenty years after Poe’s death, but the first French translation was published in 1820, so Poe could have read the Dao in French, and there was enough interest in France at the time for a second translation in 1842, the year Poe published his second detective story, so French intellectuals were talking about the Dao which cannot be talked about a bit.
Poe continues bashing Americans, the Yankees, who alone are preposterous, but Italians know little beyond marble, the French have taste but little common sense, the Chinese and East are warm but inappropriate, whatever that means, the Scotch are poor all around, the Dutch have a vague idea that a curtain isn’t a cabbage, the Spanish are all curtains entirely, a nation of hangmen, recalling the Inquisition of The Pit and the Pendulum, the Russians simply don’t furnish, but the South African Khoikhoi tribe, whom Poe and the British referred to as Hottentots, and the Midwest American Kickapoo tribe are very well in their way. The only two cultures Poe praises without criticism are the African and American tribes, which tells us what the Gothic author of horror, burial and decay thought of advancing civilization.
Poe claims Americans had no aristocrats, so they had to create “an aristocracy of dollars, the display of wealth,” not just money, but image, inauthentic display, which unfortunately causes continuous rivalry and turnover, with wealth changing hands faster than blood passes down, so Americans don’t develop sophisticated tastes, just the next out-acting the last. Poe complains, “There could be scarcely anything more directly offensive to the eye of an artist than the interior of what is termed, in the United States, a well furnished apartment.” Poe says there are too many straight lines, and when they are broken, too many right angles, and curves are too rare and too similar. Poe claims, “A carpet is the soul of the apartment,” not the high ceiling, but the base, and that, “A judge at common law may be an ordinary man; a good judge of a carpet must be a genius.” The carpet sets the mood of the room by its color, and it must be Arabesque, a pattern of lines that set each object of furniture in the room.
Poe says light should be mild and cool, with “warm shadows,” such that the warm, bright light is also dim, and the dark, cool shadows are also lit, a mixture of opposites, just like the straight and curved lines, dialectically, as Hegel would say. The Daoists of China, the Pythagoreans and Platonists of Greece and many others identify the straight with male and curved with female for hopefully obvious reasons. Poe says most use gaudy lamps and chandeliers that are unequal and glaring, and “Female loveliness in especial is more than one half disenchanted beneath its evil eye,” but a cool oil lamp, with plain but ground glass, an even, unbroken mixture of transparent and opaque, hidden and revealed, is perfect. Poe says too many mirrors is too uniform, and that a bumpkin with a brain, not an idiot but uneducated, would feel something was wrong in a room with too many mirrors. Poe wants a mixture of curved and straight, dark and light, asymmetry and symmetry, obvious and hidden, reflected and obscure.
Poe oddly says he can imagine in his mind’s eye a room of good taste, whose owner lies asleep on the sofa, the time near midnight, and Poe will make a sketch of the room before he, his friend, awakes, a room with one door and two windows, dominated by crimson, tinged with gold and silver, with a small antique oil lamp, with highly perfumed oil, near the head of his sleeping friend, and it throws a “subdued but magical radiance over all.”
While his friend is called he, the fake Hegel, which suggests back and forth dialectic, the straight and curved lines complimenting each other, and the fact that Poe goes out of his way to say that it is female beauty that is half what it is without mixed light, the sleeping he could secretly be a she, and the specific she would likely read the piece and know it was her, and possibly recall the room, but of course, that would be scandalous if the female is merely a friend and Poe is watching over her sleeping in a crimson room after midnight, what both may want but improper conduct on the face of it, in tune with the spirit of humanity, but violates the letter of the law. Perhaps Poe is recalling a certain evening a certain friend would recall as well, if it wasn’t spent simply asleep.
Poe’s detective stories all hide unspoken secrets surrounding women, and as a critic Poe praised female writers as among the best, feeling for them beneath their words. His piece is supposed to be about furniture, but he talks about taste, and carpet, and lighting, and his friend, and even seems to paraphrase passages of the Daodejing after paraphrasing his version of Hegel, but doesn’t say anything about types of tables, or chairs, or any furniture other than the specific pieces he sees in what he says is an imaginary room. The piece could be about the underlying crimson carpet, the emotion Poe is conveying beneath his words instead, and Poe is duping us, just as Dupin, his detective, dupes others in each of Poe’s detective stories.
Dupin, pronounced “Doo-puh”, like duper without an n or r on the end in a French or Southern accent, is Poe’s ingenious detective, a name Poe found in a book he reviewed the same month his first detective story was published. Dupin was a minor French statesman known as a walking library, a living encyclopedia who read and remembered everything, from the Bible, to Homer, to the Koran, to Rousseau. The name Dupin, which sounds like duping or dupin’ when mispronounced by Americans, and Dupin’s full name, C. Auguste Dupin, makes his initials C.A.D. and suggest Dupin is a cad, scoundrel or rogue who behaves deceptively, dishonorably, and unconventionally, like a Daoist sage, who lies low like water and fools most folks.
Poe could have easily known the English word dupe comes from the old French de huppe, of the hoopoe bird, with feathers that stand up on the top of the male’s head, a golden crown for intimidating others, such as predators and rivals for mates. If Poe is famous for his raven, why not also the hoopoe? The bird’s name contains Poe’s own, as if Dupin conceals Poe himself, and an even dumber pun, quite foolish, like a dupe, a pun that Poe would use if he thought Dupin’s name could dupe anyone is: Who is the hoo-poe? Dupin, the hoopoe trickster bird, is who? Poe himself, of course, who thought quite highly of his own analytical abilities, challenging anyone in one publication to send him a cryptographic puzzle he could not solve. Dupin is an unrivaled genius in all three tales.
Mark Twain wrote a half-century after Poe’s death that Murders in the Rue Morgue is the only detective story that authors shouldn’t be ashamed of. The original story began with a paragraph about phrenology that Poe took out in the final collected tales after doubts about the pseudo-science, which many used to argue for racial superiority of Europeans over African and American tribes. Poe’s nameless narrator, the foil Doyle followed when he invented Watson who watches Holmes’ great genius at work, tells us in the lost paragraph that the organ of analysis in the brain can be described but not defined as the capacity to resolve things into their elements, and if philosophers, possibly the idealists Kant and Hegel, are wrong that this organ is ideal, it is likely primitive. Poe’s narrator doesn’t mention African or American tribes, but he argues as if most phrenologists are completely wrong about race, logic and reason. If analysis is primitive, all of us have it.
Poe knew the English word analysis, like many fancy words with several syllables, comes from French, from Latin, from the Greek analusis, to loosen, untangle, or take apart, much as we divide fruit into groups by type. Kant and Hegel tell us synthesis gathers things together, much as Dupin gathers clues, testimony and motives in his imagination to see and feel more possibilities than anyone, and then analyzes what he has synthesized, breaks things down and weighs what is more or less likely, without eliminating the strangest of possibilities, unlike the cops, which is why he is the superior genius, and capable of paring down the motives and detecting the particular criminal out of the group of suspects, supreme in his analytical abilities, which is what his friend, the narrator, is trying to tell us in his long lecture at the beginning of the story after witnessing Dupin’s unsurpassed genius solve their first case together.
The narrator says many think calculation and discrimination, gathering conclusions and dividing possibilities, are at odds with the imagination, but they are wrong. Dupin later explains, after showing his genius, that imagination is both poetry and science, in other words, both Coleridge and Hegel, emotion and reason, and this is why he can read others and solve cases others can’t. The imagination is not at odds with reason, but rather verbal and emotional reasoning support each other in the imagination. Dupin deduces what the cops and others can’t because they don’t look, listen or feel as much as he does for criminals and the victims, which he uses to re-imagine the crime and determine the motive.
Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, modeled in part on Dupin, is fantastic at seeing clues and making analytic deductions, but unlike Dupin, Holmes infamously can’t read emotions in others, which is not ideal for determining motives. Doyle sacrifices emotion for pure reason with Holmes, much like Kant in his first Critique. Dupin shows off to the narrator how good he is at reading others, while Holmes can make little sense of them, but both detectives are dysfunctional and antisocial, incapable of interacting with most as most do, Holmes because he can’t read others, and Dupin because he can’t help it. Hegel, like Kant, argues reason is superior to emotion, and was no romantic like Rousseau or Poe.
The narrator says great minds are as solid as any method but they also use intuition. A great mind is more than a mere calculator. Math can make us think, but thought is more than calculation, and many misunderstand what chess truly teaches us. Games like chess, checkers, cards, and detective stories don’t just teach us to calculate the moves of pieces, but understand motives, not moves in straight lines, but arcs and curves found in fiction, the feelings that move the players that move the pieces, the greater game. Chess and cards don’t merely teach us to understand the game, but to understand people such as ourselves. We love tales with hidden twists because they show us ourselves beneath the words and characters, beneath the pieces of the game Poe is staging for us.
The narrator tells us chess is not the best game for brilliance, a game of checkers is better, and oddly states that a checkers game with four kings would be excellent, as only a brilliant move can win. We think that chess, a complicated game with complex rules, pieces, observation and detail beyond most people’s abilities is the better game for revealing ingenious critical thinking, but this is wrong, because concentration and complexity can be mistaken for profound genius, but a brilliant move in checkers that anyone could make can show us something profound, something simple that isn’t just useful or meaningful in the game, but in much of life.
Poe tells us through his narrator that profound, great minds don’t focus on the complexity of the object but the simplicity of the subject, not on the intelligence of objectivity but the stupidity of subjectivity. A great player throws themselves into their opponent’s position, feels for them, and often sees in a glance a clue that brings a flash of brilliant intuition. A complex, intricate plan is overthinking things. The brilliant player sees the moves they can use to tempt or scare their opponent into losing, which are often quite simple and stupid, like all of us.
Great chess players have attention, memory and knowledge of the game, but the skill of the brilliant analyst is beyond the limits of rules in a silent host of observations and inferences. It is not the validity of inference but the quality of observation, of knowing what to observe. The analyst does not confine their attention to the visible pieces on the board, but rather to their partners and opponents, how they arrange and observe their cards with their fingers and eyes, the ways their faces change as the game is good and bad, certain and uncertain, the ways they pick up cards from the table in victory or throw them down in defeat, subjects moved, moving objects. The greater analyst can play as if their opponents have their cards turned outwards towards them. This is what the narrator tells us before he mentions meeting Dupin.
The narrator starts his story after struggling with its meaning, telling us he was from a great family fallen on hard times and to gets by with books and little else. He meets Dupin in a library searching for the same rare book, Dupin kindles the spirit of the narrator, and the narrator rents a large abandoned mansion for them both to live in, fitting their gloomy mood. This makes Dupin the mind and the narrator the body, much like Holmes is the mind and Doctor Watson the body. The two withdraw from the world and live like madmen, existing within themselves alone. They don’t know Paris, and Paris doesn’t know them. They live in darkness inside during the day and go out at night, walking and talking together, as Poe did with his teenage friends. Dupin has weak eyes but a powerful imagination that is sensitive, so he avoids daylight and crowds and stays in the dark, which helps him think and imagine.
One night while they are out walking, Dupin amazes his friend by reading his mind, showing how he can watch someone’s eyes and see what they are seeing, listens to the sounds they make, and watch their expression to feel what they are feeling, and can follow their train of thought. Dupin tells his friend most people have a window over their hearts he can see right through, much as the narrator says that a great card player plays as if others have their cards turned outward. The Daodejing says most people parade their foolish judgements in front of others, but the wise few don’t and can read others easily.
Soon after this, the nocturnal duo read in an evening paper that at three that morning shrieks were heard from the house of Madame and Mademoiselle L’Espanaye, the Spanish as a fake French name. This makes the mother and daughter Spanish ladies, and unfortunately will have to say farewell to them very soon, as another sea chantey popular in Poe’s day goes that his brother may have sang, like drunken Captain Quint sings in Spielberg’s Jaws.
A crowd breaks in the front door and enters with two armed officers. They hear voices upstairs, one speaking French and another shrieking something none of the mixed crowd understand, so they run upstairs past three abandoned floors to a locked door which they force open, finding a fourth floor room holding a horrifying scene. All the furniture is smashed, a bloody mattress sits in the middle of the room, a bloody razor on a chair, clumps of hair by the fireplace, and two bags of 4,000 gold franks and loose silver coins, spoons and jewelry on the floor. A small open safe under the mattress with a key in the door is empty other than a few old letters and papers.
The corpse of the daughter is found stuffed, head downwards, up the chimney, with scratches on her face and bruises on her neck, as if she had been throttled to death. After searching the rest of the house they find the mother’s mutilated corpse in the backyard, with her throat cut so deeply that her head falls off when they take hold of her. A doctor later says the daughter’s tongue is partly bitten through, possibly by her, and the body of the mother was smashed as if a strong man with a large blunt object could have done it. The paper says there isn’t the slightest clue to solve the mystery yet.
The laundry lady says mother and daughter were happy and paid her well, and she never saw any strangers or servants in the house, nor furniture outside the upper room. This pairs women again with furniture, and both are destroyed. Like Dupin and the narrator, mother and daughter live by themselves, mind over body, adult over child. Their tobacconist said that they both lived in the upper room for years without tenants below, the mother was childish, the two were rarely seen, the daughter rarer still, and everyone thought they must have money stashed away.
Their banker says that three days before her death the mother withdrew 4000 francs in gold, sent to the house with a clerk. The clerk says he took the money with the mother to the house in the two bags, and that when they got there the mother took one of the bags from him, the daughter the other, and he bowed and left. He saw no one in the street at the time. The police continue to search and interview, but with no further results or clues. The clerk who carried the money to the house is arrested, but the paper says nothing incriminated him. If only four people know about the money, and two are dead, and one is a banker, the cops arrest the clerk.
Dupin seems interested in the case and nothing else, as he says nothing about it to his friend, deep in his own imagination, but after the clerk is arrested he asks the narrator for his opinion, who says the case is unsolvable. Dupin says that the Parisian police are smart but no more, making a vast parade of measures frequently ill-adapted to the objects at hand, and their successes are due to diligence, much like the narrator has told us chess moves require great attention, but may be two complicated to be ingenious or profound. Dupin says the famed police agent Vidocq, a model for Dupin, had good instincts and perseverance, but investigated objects too close, losing sight of the matter as a whole. Dupin says:
Truth is not always in a well. In fact, as regards the more important knowledge, I do believe that she is invariably superficial. To look at things indirectly is the more refined comprehension. By undue complexity we perplex and enfeeble thought, and can make even Venus herself vanish from the heavens.
Why is truth superficial? Because motives like love, hate, sex and violence are stupid and obvious but move the players, the real pieces in the game. When we ignore the feelings that frame the game, we make Venus, goddess of love and passion, vanish from our thinking. The clerk Le Bon, whose name means the Good, did a favor once for Dupin, so Dupin returns the favor and solves the case to free the clerk from jail. Dupin feels for Le Bon, who felt for him, and we can too. It parallels the gold coins in bags and the loose, varied silver, with emotion, the lower, like a carpet, loose and varied, and the rational, the higher, like the law and finance, contained and uniform, which parallels the curved and straight lines of the furniture piece.
What Poe doesn’t say, but we can imagine if we feel for the clerk, is he saw the daughter, and perhaps she smiled at him, or perhaps she ignored him, but either way the chief locks up the clerk because the chief thinks the clerk wanted sex or money, like the mattress and empty safe left unexplained in the middle of the room, but the clerk couldn’t have escaped without being seen by the crowd, and the money is still there, so the chief and cops can’t solve the case, but can unjustly imprison someone to make the community feel better and feel secure their own positions. Dupin feels for the clerk, and feels that the cops are not fully feeling for him, but rather serving their own motives at the expense of the clerk’s.
Dupin knows the police chief, and gets permission to inquire into the case. They go to the house, Dupin examines everything, and on their way home he stops at a newspaper office. We learn later he has felt out the possibilities, imagined what is most likely, and is setting a trap to see if he is right. Unlike Holmes, who is certain of what he judges is elementary, Dupin says that genius always involves probability, which is whittled down by analysis but not closed out. Dupin says coincidences are stumbling blocks to the uneducated in probability, and the cops think the case is unsolvable simply because there are no suspects who could have escaped and no motives that make sense, but this actually eliminates most possibilities, leaving us to conclude it could only be something bizarre, a possibility that most wouldn’t consider.
Dupin says he will or has solved the case with as much ease as the cops have difficulties, and he is waiting for someone who is hopefully innocent, but has pistols to detain him just in case. Dupin says the women weren’t killed by spirits, but the assassin doesn’t seem human. He asks his friend to open his mind and imagine the second voice, shrieking no language the crowd understands. Dupin says he thought, a posteriori, borrowing a term from Kant, that the murderer couldn’t escape, but he found a window that locks when it shuts, and an incredible acrobat could have climbed up the lightning rod on the side of the house, climbed through the open window, and the widow locked after he left. The mother and daughter are frightened of the outside world, reclusive like Dupin and his friend, but they failed to consider the absurd possibility of an acrobatic assassin, and left their fourth floor window open.
Dupin says to keep these points steadily in mind, the shrill, undecipherable voice, the acrobatics, and the lack of a reasonable motive. The daughter was strangled by hand, not killed with the razor, and then thrust up a chimney, which isn’t where an assassin would hide a body. Dupin says this isn’t simply odd, but excessively odd, like the EXTRAORDINARY MURDERS the evening paper announced. Dupin says the strength to thrust the daughter’s body up a chimney that required several men to get her out, tear hair out by the roots and cut a head almost entirely off a body with a razor is quite extra-ordinary itself.
Dupin asks the narrator what he is thinking, and the narrator feels his flesh crawl, as if he can think of something, but not quite, and says it must be a madman, some raving maniac escaped from an asylum. Dupin says that madmen do talk in words, however incoherent, that he found hair that is not human in the mother’s clenched fingers, and can show the daughter was not strangled by human hands. Dupin has the narrator read a passage from Cuvier describing the orangutan of the islands of Southeast Asia, and the narrator suddenly sees that the murderer could not have been anyone except an orangutan, but who was the other French voice? Dupin, who has put himself in the place of a madman, and then in the place of an ape, also found a piece of ribbon outside that sailors use to tie back their hair. A sailor could capture an ape, bring it home, and lose it, so Dupin has already taken out an add in the paper asking if anyone has lost an orangutan, which is why they are waiting with pistols.
At that moment, they hear someone climb the front stairs, hesitate, turn and start to leave, turn back, step up to the door, and knock with determination. Anyone should be able to read the feelings in these sounds, and we haven’t even seen the sailor yet. Dupin says “Come in!” in a cheerful and hearty tone, luring him in. A tall, stocky sailor with a sunburned face hidden by a beard and a wooden club enters the room cautiously. He resembles an orangutan, orange, hairy and possibly violent, and he is armed with a club that could have crushed the mother’s body according to the doctor.
Dupin asks the sailor to sit, and says that he envies him, as he has caught a valuable beast. The sailor sighs, relieved, and Dupin says he can pick up his ape at a stable in the morning. The sailor says he will pay a reasonable reward, and Dupin says he would like the sailor to tell him everything he knows about the murders the other night as he quietly locks the door, puts the key in his pocket, pulls out a pistol and sets it on the table. The sailor’s sunburned face flushes, he rises to his feet with his club, then falls back trembling, the converse of turning to go but then knocking confidently. The narrator pities him from the bottom of his heart, sympathizing with this dual-natured sailor, both man and beast, violent and victim.
Dupin tells the sailor they mean him no harm, says he knows the sailor is innocent, and asks the sailor to confess, and the sailor says he will, but he doesn’t believe they will believe him. The sailor says he sailed to the island of Borneo and captured the orangutan with a friend who died, leaving him with a furious ape on the journey home. He kept the ape in Paris while it recovered from a splinter in its foot, hoping to sell it. Then, after a night of drinking, the sailor returned home to find the ape had broken out of his closet and was sitting in front of the mirror trying to shave with the sailor’s razor, which it had seen through the keyhole.
The sailor pulls out his whip, and the ape flees through an open window. The ape runs ahead, waits for the sailor to catch up, and then runs ahead again, clearly conflicted about loving and hating the sailor. Unlike Dupin and the narrator, the sailor and ape don’t walk arm in arm at night, with sailor’s mind and ape’s body out of tune. The ape sees something shiny in the mother and daughter’s window, which the narrator doesn’t mention is likely the loose silver, the emotions and motives, not the gold coins in bags, the words and logical reasoning, that catches the light, as the ladies are up at odd hours counting their money for their own private purposes. The sailor, who climbs the lightning rod after his ape, peeks in the window.
The ape tries to shave the mother to help her, but doesn’t know neither women nor apes shave. The mother screams and struggles, angers the ape, and with one sweep of its arm it severs her neck. The frenzied ape drops the razor on the chair, strangles the daughter, sees the sailor in the window, breaks the furniture, shoves the daughter up the chimney and the mother out the window to conceal its crimes in simple ways. The ape hurls the mother headlong through the window, which is barely possible as she barely has a head. The sailor slides down the lightning rod and goes home, abandoning the ape completely. The voices the crowd heard on the stairs were the sailor outside and the ape inside.
The narrator says he has scarcely anything to add, and that the ape was eventually caught and sold by the sailor to the botanical garden for a good sum. The clerk is released, the angry chief says people should mind their own business, bested, and Dupin says let him talk, as he beat the chief in his own castle. The chief is all flower with no stem, all head with no body, all brain with no heart, like Laverna, the Roman goddess of thieves and the underworld, or a codfish, according to Dupin.
Opening quotes are sometimes meaningless addendums and window-dressing, as they were in Poe’s day, but in the opening quote to the story we are told that the name of the song that the Sirens sang and the name that Achilles took when he hid among women are puzzling, but not beyond all conjecture. The Sirens sing an emotional song that leads to death, but it isn’t named with a word. Achilles is a strong warrior, but he hides under a false name among sentimental women. Words and names are hard to figure out in such emotional matters, but they are not completely impossible to figure out.
The narrator oddly says at the start that a checkers game with four kings could show us brilliant moves. In the story sailor catches ape, mother keeps daughter, chief locks up clerk, and detective captivates narrator, four pairs of pieces with one over the other. Adventure leads to disaster and injustice leads to justice as the first pair kills the second and the third is redeemed by the fourth. The sailor’s ape kills the mother and daughter, and the chief jailing the clerk leads the detective to solve the case. No one is punished as it seems there is no crime, but there is one unexplained end at the start of the sailor’s story: the second sailor.
The opening quote tells us Achilles hid unnamed among women, a sailor with a fatal flaw, like an ape with a splinter in its foot, and the name Achilles took is not beyond all conjecture. According to the final quote from Dupin, there is a master-stroke of brilliance in saying what isn’t and explaining what hasn’t been. The second sailor isn’t, and we should explain why he hasn’t been since. Dupin says the best solutions involve probability, and we can say with reasonable probability that the first sailor cut the throat of the second to keep the ape for himself.
The first sailor’s face is half-hidden by beard but he keeps a razor and says the ape watched him shave. Poe borrowed a bit from the Voyage of the Potomac, a ship that took half a year to sail from New York to Indonesia. If the sailor’s beard is longer than his voyage he lied and the ape didn’t watch him shave, but watched someone shave and someone cut a throat, which is how the ape learned to use the razor to shave and as a weapon. Poe also borrowed a bit from a folktale about a man who teaches an ape to shave and then tricks the ape into cutting its own throat. The first sailor cut the throat of the second while the second was shaving, giving the first the opportunity, weapon and motive.
Dupin tells us he has a window into others’ hearts, but doesn’t get a chance to watch tells to solve the case. He reads clues and feels for the ape, mother and daughter, but never meets any of them. He feels for the clerk in prison but doesn’t visit him. Dupin feels that he hurt the chief’s pride, but after the case is closed. The sailor is the only piece that shows us tells, and he is easy to read twice. He pauses on the stairs before ringing the doorbell and rises from the chair but remembers the gun, showing he is capable but also confused. Dupin tells the sailor he is innocent which calms him, but the sailor hesitates a third and final time, the moment he thinks of his partner. Just as four pairs make the moves of the plot, four words make the most brilliant move of the story. The sailor starts his story “after a brief pause,” and after that the narrator summarizes the sailor’s story, stripping it of all further tells from the sailor.
The first death in the story is like the first killing, with the throat cut and body left outside, and the final injustice is like the second killing, with youth strangled and stuck in a space. Why doesn’t Dupin solve this hidden crime? Poe hoped we would, by following his words, feeling out the sailor and imagining what happened. To help us even more, in his second detective story we discover a sailor has killed someone he loves. Poe has duped us all with Dupin since, taking the secret to his grave after he invented the whodunnit. Emotions may be the weakness of words, the Achilles’ heel hiding at the base of all arguments, but feelings are the strength of meaning itself, and we can hardly think without them.
Poe’s sequel to the Rue Morgue, The Murder of Marie Roget is based on the unsolved murder of Mary Rogers, a young woman who worked at a cigar store in New York City who may or may not have known Poe and sold him cigars. A particular gentlemen, the news noted after her death, had paid Mary much attention at the store three years earlier and then left town, causing Mary to wander off and consider suicide. One paper noted that, just like a cigar, the romance had gone up in smoke. These are Poe’s competitors at rhetoric. An opinion piece argued girls shouldn’t work at cigar or candy stores, where they interact with men. Another paper insisted that a naval officer, a sailor, had seduced Mary and kept her in Hoboken for two weeks, until abandoning her rather than marrying her as promised. Another paper said that the stories about Mary running off with anyone were phony, and a reporter fond of Mary had been severely beaten by other admirers after visiting her store.
On June 25th, 1841, Mary told Daniel Payne, a boarder at Mary’s house who happened to be shaving at the time, that she was going to her aunt’s house to take her aunt’s children to Sunday Church. Daniel agreed to meet her later, but after a thunderstorm Mary didn’t show and he returned home, as she had stayed with her aunt before in similar weather, but after Mary was not back yet after Daniel returned home from his job at the cork factory, he took a coach to her aunt’s and was horrified to hear that Mary never got there. Daniel had been courting Mary, as many were apparently, including Alfred Crommeline, who four days later while searching for Mary saw a crowd down by the river. A body of a young woman was dragged out of the water, and Alfred recognized the clothing, called the cops, who called the coroner, who pronounced her dead by violent means, strangled after sexual abuse. The coroner reported she had been bound with “sailor’s knots, not ladies’ knots,” gagged, and assaulted by several assailants.
The papers gave the case full coverage for six weeks, but the case was never solved. Many used the event to lecture on morality, and others to sensationalize theories that went nowhere. While the theory that a gang had attacked Mary continued to hold sway, some questioned whether or not the doctor could tell if Mary had been attacked or had an abortion instead that may or may not have gone wrong. The doctor continued to insist that Mary had been a woman of virtue. A five hundred dollar reward for information leading to solving the case was offered by citizens and the police, but even when it was raised several times over it didn’t bring results.
Then, strangely, some of Mary’s clothes and a monogrammed handkerchief were found by Mrs. Frederica Loss in a thicket near her roadhouse by the river where Mary was found. Loss says Mary arrived with a dark male stranger about 4 in the afternoon on the day she disappeared, drank some lemonade and left on the stranger’s arm smiling. Loss, who had sent one of her sons to deliver a bull down the road, heard screaming just after dark at 9, which her other son down in the cellar heard as well. She said she feared her son had been gored by the bull and rushed down the road after him. She heard something like a struggle nearby, and then silence. There had been gangs roughhousing in the afternoon along the bank that day, and her boys found the clothes in the thicket a month afterwards while playing, which is when she realized that the young woman had been Mary.
The papers continued to debate whether Mary’s lover or a gang had strangled her or mistreated her. Poe’s story, which closely follows the exact events of the case and sets them in Paris with Marie Roget, which would have fooled no one at all in New York who read any of the papers. Much of Poe’s story takes place in newspaper accounts that the narrator and Dupin read, just as Poe would have followed the case of Mary in the papers himself. Dupin concludes that the scene of the crime makes no sense if a gang committed the crime, but does if a single sailor, Mary’s dark stranger, had brought her to the thicket, and then strangled her before or after passion or Mary pleading for marriage. Dupin says the sailor dumped Mary’s body after leaving everything behind in the thicket, and in Poe’s story the sailor turns himself in and confesses. Poe wrote to an editor that his story had disproved the gang theory, and “indicated the assassin.” Unfortunately Loss confessed on her deathbed several months after Poe first published parts of his story that Mary had been the victim of a botched abortion, which was criminal at the time, which is likely why one of her sons in the cellar had heard the screams, and the other had been sent down the road.
Poe changed several details in the story in the final version in the collected tales to suggest that Marie had already had one abortion, disappearing for awhile years ago, much as Mary wandered off suicidal, and suggests that Loss, Madame Deluc in his retelling, was an accomplice, another fancy word with several syllables from French. Dupin points out that children would play in the thicket and find the clothes much sooner than a month later, and that clothes do not take a month to mildew when left outside, which suggests Deluc in the story holds on to the clothes, whether or not she was concealing an abortion or a place for lovers’ trysts, and then she left the clothes out for a bit and brought them to the cops when she feared she would be revealed or was threatened by the sailor to help him conceal his crime. Poe had already committed himself to the idea that the sailor had strangled Marie, but either way Deluc, Loss in real life, had to have a hand in the crime or concealment.
In 1891, 42 years after Poe’s death, John Anderson, the owner of the cigar shop where the original Mary Rogers worked before her tragic death, left a will that was contested in court, and it was alleged that Poe was paid five thousand dollars to write the story to divert suspicion from Anderson himself. The character in the story is Le Blanc, the white, like Le Bon of the first story, the good, but the claim is far-fetched. Poe almost came to blows at a party in 1844 when someone suggested that Anderson, Poe’s friend, was using the death to help his business. Perhaps it was suggested that Poe was profiting himself from it as well.
Different critics have praised each of the three stories as the best, but Poe himself said that the last, The Purloined Letter, was his best, and it is both brilliant and half the length of the other two tales, which may make it more profound according to Dupin. Like the Rue Morgue, Poe returned to a fantastic, imaginary case after worrying about his reputation in misjudging the case of Mary Rogers a bit. Dupin and the narrator are smoking pipes by the fire discussing the two previous cases, “meditation and meerschaum,” as the narrator says, when the police chief, who pleaded with Dupin to take the case of Marie Roget, returns to ask him to take another case that he is charged to solve personally and can’t. The narrator says it is quite a coincidence, but not if Dupin knows the chief is coming.
The chief says the case isn’t a killing like the last two, but something simple that the cops can handle but Dupin might find interesting, as the case is odd, like Dupin himself. Dupin says maybe the case is too simple for them, as he said about the case and cops in the first story, and the chief laughs at this impossible suggestion, and says it is quite complicated, as someone in a high quarter had a document stollen from the royal apartments. Much as the word rape was absent from the second story, with many suggestive words with more syllables, such as “manhandle” or “maltreat” in its place, the chief tells us in so many indirect words that Minister D, what we are told of his name, entered the royal apartments and saw the queen reading a letter she tried to hide but couldn’t, so she left it on a table in plain sight. When the king arrives, the minister, recognizing the handwriting of the letter and seeing his chance to blackmail the queen, puts another letter down by the first, then picks up the queen’s letter and leaves, all while the king is there so the queen can’t say anything.
Clearly, like Mary and Marie, the queen is up to something, or someone. Poe’s audience would likely know from the papers that Caroline Princess of Wales wrote a letter to her husband King George IV over marital difficulties that got into the wrong hands, and it became a political scandal. Without saying it, we can imagine the queen has a lover other than the king, which is not only infidelity, but treason. The queen is mixing her interests improperly, but the minister is mixing business with his own power, so they are both committing crimes they can’t let the king figure out. Luckily, the king remains entirely clueless. The sinister minister, like Dupin, can read people, reading the queen correctly, first her anxiety and then her position. The queen has charged the chief with finding her lost letter, but we never learn anything else about its contents, its word or overall emotional point, but we suspect. Dupin notes the minister can’t use the letter openly, but as long as he holds on to it and doesn’t use it, he has the queen under his thumb.
The minister, like Dupin and the narrator, is out all night every night, and the chief had the entire police force, all the king’s men, turn over every inch of the minister’s apartments several times for hours without finding anything, and search every building two buildings over, using every technique to the fullest extent, checking all hiding places, testing the floor and the furniture, and the chief also says, without saying it directly, that he personally has dressed up with other cops as robbers, detained the minister twice, searched him, and didn’t find the letter. Apparently robbing people can count as time served on the force for her majesty’s honor. In the movie Duck Soup, Groucho Marx turns to his men protecting the matriarch at their final stand against the enemy, and says, “Remember, you’re fighting for this woman’s honor, which is probably more than she ever did.”
Dupin says the minister is not a complete fool, but the chief says the minister is a poet, so he is nearly a fool. Dupin says true, “after a long drag,” with the narrator using a similar set of words for the sailor’s pause in the first story, showing us without telling us Dupin is offended and disagrees, but feels that he and others are various sorts of fools, some more self-aware than the chief of police. Dupin says he is guilty of a bit of poetry himself, and the narrator takes over questioning the chief much like Dupin, showing his time with Dupin has done his mind good, and that he can feel his friend’s frustration, but after suggesting several things the cops have tried, the narrator concludes the letter isn’t in the minister’s apartments, but Dupin says it is, and the cops should search again, even though they have gone over everything over-systematically with microscopes.
Months later the chief comes back, sadly sits in the same chair, the narrator asks him about the case, and Dupin asks about the reward. The chief won’t say what the reward is, but offers 50,000 Francs from his own checkbook, which suggests the reward is far larger, as if Dupin wouldn’t be able to read this in his response. Dupin takes another slow drag of his pipe, and tells the chief to cut him the check, and he’ll hand him the letter. The narrator, Dupin’s friend, is astonished, and had no idea the letter was there with them. The chief takes several minutes to respond, staring at Dupin silently, pulls out his checkbook, writes the check, and Dupin gets up and produces the letter from his writing desk.
The chief leaves with the letter immediately, without asking a word about how Dupin found it, which we can read in his haste, a likely indicator of how valuable it is for his pocket and position with the queen. Dupin again says the cops are often alright, but the letter wasn’t hidden, which is why they didn’t find it. The cops were looking for a hiding place, not for something hiding in plain sight. Dupin says many schoolboys are smarter, and he met an extraordinary boy who could best anyone at a simple guessing game of even and odd marbles held in the hand by clearing his mind and feeling what his opponent is feeling, just as the narrator suggests in the beginning of the Rue Morgue.
Dupin says the police methods were perfect, but they can’t step back and see the big picture, much as the words on large signs can be missed when nearby. The narrator asks if the minister is the poet, as there are two brothers, one a poet, the other a mathematician. Dupin says the minister is both a poet and a mathematician, and knows him well, and if he were merely a mathematician and not a poet, the cops would have caught him. The narrator says most of the world thinks mathematics the supreme form of reason, and Dupin says mathematicians and the French have tried to spread this error in the public as best as they can, and that mere math can’t reason at all. Dupin may be referring to Comte’s positivism, which is a major basis of modern analytic philosophy. Dupin says analysis conveys algebra about as much as ambitus, seeking office, implies ambition, as much as religio, what binds us, religion, and homines honesti, the upstanding citizens, are honorable men. Cicero used the term for men of his own political party. Thus, analysis is more than algebra, as thought is more than symbol and title.
Dupin quotes the French aphorist Chamfort, a favorite quote often quoted by Poe in person: You can bet on the fact that any idea or convention widely accepted is wrong, for it is simply convenient to the greatest number. Poe chooses a poet to show us the greater truth, while suggesting mere mathematics is for common dupes, who understand what generally. Abstract algebra does not lead to general truth, because in morality and chemistry the whole is more than the simple sum of its parts. It is not finite truths, atomic and complete in themselves, but truths of relation, of relationships between the elements of the situation. He accuses the mathematicians of Pagan mythology, polytheism, and says if you tell a mathematician truth is not simply equations, you should take care to step back, as they will try to knock you out, unaware of the overall emotions involved.
Dupin says he knew the minister left his apartment so the cops could thoroughly search it, so he visited the minister the other day with his green eyeglasses so he could use his weak eyes as an excuse to search the room while talking to the minister. He looked over the minister’s writing desk with no luck, but in a glance he saw a tattered letter pinned above the mantle, in plain sight, and knew. Oddly, Dupin does not look over the mantle first, but at the minister’s desk. Dupin says that the daring, dashing, brilliant minister is beyond the chief and the cops, and has fooled everyone but him, so he leaves a gold snuff box on the minister’s table, returns the next day to fetch it, pays a man in the street to fire a gun in the air as if it misfired, and when the minister rushes to the window, nervous about violence, Dupin switches the letter on the mantle for a copy he created from his own desk at home.
Dupin says the minister would have killed him if he knew he had the letter, so he left quickly, but he left the minister a clue, as leaving it blank would simply be insulting, a verse that should let the minister know just how he was fooled when he next looks at the letter. Apparently Dupin wants to be complexly insulting, not simply insulting. The minister has stepped on a lot of people to gain more and more power, Dupin says, a monster of a man, and a genius, both poet and mathematician, so the worst of monsters. Dupin says the minister did him an evil once in Vienna, much as the bank clerk did him a favor once in the first story, which is again why Dupin solves the case, and so he leaves the minister a final quote, in his own handwriting, which the minister will recognize: A scheme so hateful, if it is not worthy of Atreus, is worthy of Thyestes.
In the ancient Greek myth, Thyestes sleeps with his twin brother Atreus’ wife, Atreus gets revenge by serving Thyestes his own children in a stew, and then Thyestes takes revenge on Atreus for killing his children. Dupin and Minister D of The Purloined Letter are twins, as the critic Milner argued, which many missed before him, both of them poets and mathematicians, the two brothers, both handsome, both brilliant, which leaves one more thing unsolved, like the sailor’s second in the Rue Morgue: Who is the queen’s lover?
It could be the chief, or the narrator, but there is only one possible candidate, who is handsome and brilliant, poet and mathematician, who seems to have little energy but dupes others and gets around, like his twin, but unlike his twin, not a monster, but someone who loves and cares for others. Because we are literally told Dupin, “produced the note from his desk” for the chief, Dupin is the lover, and he produced the note from his desk twice, the first time when he wrote it to the queen, as her lover, and the second time when he retrieved it for the chief. That is why his twin recognized the handwriting while the letter was in the queen’s hand from the beginning.
There is no assignment for this week. Work on the last two assignments on truth tables, and email me or meet me at office hours if you need help or have questions.
The Annotated Poe, ed. by Kevin J. Hayes, Belknap 2015
The Creative & the Resolvent by Paul Hurh, 19th Century Literature, v.66 n.4 2012 p.466-93
Poe & the Cogito by Jeffrey Folks, The Southern Literary Journal, 42.1 2009 pp 57-72
Edgar Allan Poe & The Dupin Mysteries by Richard Kopley, Palgrave 2008
The Cambridge Companion To Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Hayes, Kevin J., 2002
A Historical Guide to Edgar Allan Poe, ed. By J. Gerald Kennedy, Oxford 2001
A Companion to Poe Studies, by Eric W. Carlson, Greenwood 1996
The Purloined Poe, ed. by Muller & Richardson, Johns Hopkins 1988
Critical Essays on Edgar Allan Poe, ed. by Eric W. Carlson, Cambridge 1987
Poe the Detective: The Curious Circumstances Behind The Mystery of Marie Roget,
by John Walsh, Rutgers 1968
Billy Joel sings that he wants you just the way you are, whether or not you get it right the first time. Unfortunately, according to Aristotle, you are necessarily identical to yourself, so you can’t be any other body or any other ways, and would only be your way, not anyone else’s. It is tautologically necessary, according to modern, formal logicians, that you, and only you, are the person you person, and are way you are. Fortunately, Billy Joel seems fine with all this, though I personally feel formal logicians should be very different people, given there are so many of them, and they can’t all be identical.
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646 – 1716 CE) was a German philosopher and mathematician who invented calculus around the same time as Isaac Newton. Newton tried to confusingly name everything after himself, with many types of newtons, so science kept one kind, the newton as unit of force, and used Leibniz less self-serving system of notation for the rest of Calculus and physics instead. Leibniz’s first job was alchemist’s assistant, and then he became a lawyer’s assistant, perhaps with more worldly success. Leibniz published little during his lifetime, and to this day no definitive collection exists of his various and disparate writings. His most famous writings are his Monadology and his Discourse on Metaphysics.
Leibniz invented the binary system still used by computers today, which may or may not give way to something else like quantum computers in the future, which do not rely on two separate values such as 1 and 0. Leibniz was a sinophile, who loved Chinese culture, studied Chinese thought that was available to him, and invented his binary system inspired by the Yi Jing (I Ching), the ancient Chinese binary divination system that represents all possible situations with solid and broken lines just as Leibniz’s binary system represents all numbers with ones and zeros. Leibniz was communicating with Christian missionaries in China, and he, like some of the missionaries, believed that Europeans could learn much from Confucianism that was in line with Christianity. An admirer of the Chinese abacus, Leibniz was one of the most important innovators of the mechanical calculator, an early computer which employed his binary system.
Like Descartes and Spinoza, Leibniz believed that God created the world as a rational, mechanical apparatus. Because of this, Leibniz famously argued that this is the best of all possible worlds. As God is omniscient, God was aware of all possible worlds before creation, and chose this to be the created world, so it must therefore be the best. Of course, many who ponder the problem of evil, the theological problem debated for centuries about how suffering in a rational world is possible, would question this assertion. Leibniz came up with a pure deductive understanding of the world, which was quite unlike how we experience it. The infinite, the eternal, is for the mathematician Leibniz an infinite series of distinct points, the elementary particles of the universe, eternal and indivisible, like the atoms (“without cut”) of the ancient Indian and Greek atomists. This infinite plurality is entirely made of mind, and each is its entire universe, what Leibniz calls a pre-established harmony.
Leibniz is a strange, outlying philosopher, one I mention but don’t cover extensively for Modern European Philosophy, but he is very important to the history of logic, not only because he helped invent the binary computer, which is where many modern logics live, but he is also one of the first to articulate something Aristotle argues for but doesn’t draw into an explicit principle, what some logicians still call the Law of Non-Contradiction, but most others refer to as the Principle of Non-Contradiction, as it is more understood by secular scholars today as something psychological, but was, for Aristotle, Avicenna, Aquinas and others a law of the universe, one that Nagarjuna of India, Heraclitus of Greece and Hui Shi of China would certainly deny.
The Principle of Non-Contradiction, or PNC for short, can be stated as: If a statement is true, then its negation is false, and if a statement is false, then its negation is true. For example, if the statement Leibniz is a logician is true, then the statement Leibniz is not a logician is false, and vice-versa. Kant and Russell, advocates of logic and the Principle of Non-Contradiction, studied the work of Leibniz intensely, advocating this principle. Russell, who founded Logical Positivism, the basis of Analytic Philosophy, the dominant school of philosophy in the Anglophonic world, argued that we can base all logic, mathematics and certain, objective science on the single truth of the Principle of Non-Contradiction. In formal logic, Graham Priest at CUNY is one of the most famous critics of the principle, arguing, like Hui Shi and Heraclitus, that at least some contradictions are possible, such that Leibniz could be a logician but also not in different ways for different purposes which are both valid.
What is a contradiction? It is an argument, between sides, in its most visible and audible form. We can contradict ourselves, and argue with ourselves, which isn’t the same thing, but similar. A simple contradiction in speech, between two sides, whether or not there are one or two people, or more, is I turned the lights off and No, you didn’t, which is a difference of opinion. If we assume there isn’t a relative dimmer switch, and the lights could go more on or more off, then one side is right and the other side is wrong. Switches are designed as bifurcating devices, as a serious dilemma that could go one way or the other, like the contradiction over the switch. Checking to see if the lights are on or off can resolve the dilemma, debate and contradiction, unless there is a twist, and it turns out, given further evidence and experience, that the switch doesn’t work, or the lights were turned off by someone else later, or its the wrong switch, or the wrong set of lights that should never be turned off, unlike all the others. Even given the simple, bifurcating device of the switch there is a complex human situation that can easily involve contradiction between differently interested parties.
If this is what a contradiction is, then what is the principle of non-contradiction saying? That people can’t get into debates? Aristotle, like Kant long after him, and like Russell long after Kant, argued that not all questions can be solved correctly, but some can, and it is the task of the human mind to use reason to solve what can be solved completely. As for favorite flavor of ice-cream, there are some flavors that would turn heads in many cultures, but it is a matter of subjective taste and opinion. However, insofar as math and logic are supposed to ideally work, in these matters and questions there are true, objective and singular answers that are not relatively true, but absolutely true, much as many would say that two and three together making five is universally, objectively, absolutely and even ideally true, beyond practices or culture.
The principle of non-contradiction applies to these truths, such that if someone contradicts what is absolutely true, they are necessarily wrong. If two and three make five, in all possible ways, then anyone who says two and three make four or six is simply and completely wrong, regardless of their upbringing, practices, cultures, or success, as it is not about what pragmatically works, but what is positively true. Much as Kant argues about morality, it isn’t what keeps the ship sailing, but what is true that we should believe, even if it means disaster and we all go down with the ship, because right is what is overall important, not results. This is the major issue we will talk through again in many ways between positivism and pragmatism.
Aristotle, Farabi, Avicenna, Aquinas, Leibniz, Kant and Russell are some of the central thinkers who made the principle of non-contradiction what it is today. Aristotle said that skeptics like Heraclitus are no better than plants, understanding nothing. Avicenna said those who say fire and beatings are and are not good, only relative evils, should be burned and beaten until they stop saying such things, which is hopefully a joke at the expense of skeptics like al-Ghazali, the Sufi mystic, who criticized Avicenna and was criticized by Averroes. Russell argues that Mill, Dewey and all other instrumentalists, utilitarians and pragmatists, who argue truth is not ideal but relative cannot say anything with certainty, and have to investigate all possibilities continuously to absurdity, such as wondering if we truly did have coffee with breakfast.
I suggest Wittgenstein was right, as a pragmatic person myself, when he said the trick is to see we can stop and start doing philosophy when we want to, as we may never hit bedrock and have the final understandings or answers to anything. Like Priest, Wittgenstein wrote that contradictions need not be false. Logic which excludes all contradictions as nonsense is only a small part of the ways we use language. Lewis Carroll certainly thought so. Aristotelian logic is not the genuine basis of all reasoning any more than trigonometry is the genuine basis of all geometry. (LWPP1 525) The logic of language is more complicated than it looks. (LWPP2 44)
Wittgenstein wrote that some believe in the excluded middle, that a statement cannot be both true and false, but it is rather that true and false divide the field of possibilities, but not always into exclusive parts. Wittgenstein gives the sad example, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” which is not simply a yes or no question, as if someone has never beaten their wife, it is true in one sense, as I am not currently engaging in domestic violence, and false in another, as saying yes implies that I used to, in a way that resembles subalternation. (RPP1 274) The comedian Mitch Hedberg joked, I used to do a lot of drugs… I still do, but I used to, also. Wittgenstein said contradictions are not catastrophes to be feared and avoided, but problems that require engagement with contrary judgements. (Z 685-9) This is likely why Wittgenstein had a deep appreciation of the nonsensical problems found in the arguments of Wonderland.
I I tell you A is true and false, am I telling you nothing, or am I telling you a great deal? If I say nothing I say nothing, even if the silence implies something significant, but if I say something contradictory, that Steve is good and Steve is not good, that the girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead is sometimes very, very good, but when she’s bad she’s horrid, I’m saying at least two things, if not implying more. An argument tells us a lot about both sides, and often shows us things both sides can’t fully see about each other. Humor and nonsense are directly contradictory, just as fantasy contradicts reality by degree, and they teach us much about us.
Leibniz has two other principles which are important in the history of formal logic, and which Kant and Russell both support. The second is the Principle of Identity of Indiscernibles: If two things are without any discernible difference, then they must be not two things, but identical, the same single thing. Of course, if two things are in different locations or exist at different times, this is a discernible difference, one that would shoot any instance of the principle down. Many illustrate this today with the example of two types of minerals labeled equally as jade in ancient China, before humanity had the technology to tell the difference.
The third is the Principle of Sufficient Reason: If something exists, there must be a reason why it exists the way it does. Leibniz believes that the world was teleologically created by God, who controls all in this best and most rational of all possible worlds, and so he assumes that each thing can be rationally explained because each thing was rationally created by an intellect superior but similar to our own. Many secular modern people hold this principle, but without teleology it is difficult to argue that humanity can come up with intelligible reasons that explain apples entirely, or anything else. Are there sufficient reasons apples exist and behave as they do? What is sufficient enough for this? Is it to our satisfaction, or are there objective reasons, in number, that exist independently?
There is one last principle that should be mentioned and strangely isn’t as much, the Principle of Bivalence: A statement must be true or false, not neither true nor false. This is somewhat the inverse of the Principle of Non-Contradiction, that a statement must not be both true and false together, which is the third of Nagarjuna’s four things, and the Principle of Bivalence is the fourth. Leibniz, Kant, Russell and others are focused on non-contradiction, not bivalence. This could be because Aristotle himself wanders in his answer whether neither good nor bad is both or neither, and concludes it is more-so, relatively speaking, neither, which means Aristotle allows for Nagarjuna’s fourth but not third thing. It seems those who argue for non-contradiction think both sides can’t be right, but both sides could be wrong, as if correct is exclusive, but incorrect is inclusive, regardless of how much we all have common sense.
It is high time we had a fireside cat or two.
The Islamic Golden Age, from 800 to 1200 CE, the time of the three great Islamic philosopher-logicians, al-Farabi, Avicenna, and Averroes, was one of the most important periods of human history, like the Tang Dynasty of China (618 – 907) just before it and the Italian Renaissance (1400 – 1600) just after it. Sumerian, Babylonian, Syrian, Persian, Indian, Greek, Roman and Chinese culture was gathered and developed in Islamic lands, first Arabia, soon after Persia, and then a vast empire that stretched from Spain to China, the largest in history.
When we study the history of thought, it is wise to remember that we have not been doing history for very long. Writing is only several thousand years old, the type-based printing press, one of the most important devices Muslims passed from China to Europe, is only a thousand years old, and popular literacy has been very rare until recently in the wealthiest parts of our shared world.
Muslims have a great appreciation for the golden age of Islam, but we who are American or European do not. I myself didn’t until I was in graduate school, studying the history of philosophy and religion. Unfortunately, if we are not aware of what Islam gave the world, we do not understand European or modern history much, because what ancient India, Greece and China gave our modern world passed through Islamic hands across their vast caliphates and then through caravans reached beyond.
Without paper, press, compass, gunpowder, algebra, calculated insurance rates and countless other devices and ideas, the Italian Renaissance, European colonialism and our modern post-colonial would not have happened as it did. The Western Europeans, a.k.a. the West, my Celtic and Germanic ancestors, did not have wealthy cities in the time of ancient Athens, but like the Arabs, ignored as barbarians until their age by the powers that bordered them, they conquered many who considered themselves civilization itself.
Christian Europeans have, for centuries after getting Greek texts from Muslims, focused on connections between ancient Greece and Western Europe, ignoring connections between ancient Babylon, Egypt, Persia and Greece, and connections between India, China, Islam and Europe, which is a very partial and narrow view of our common world history. When we do study Islam, Europeans, such as myself, focus on Plato, Aristotle and their impact on Islamic thought, the impact of this on Christian European Neo-Platonists, or Islam in the modern world after 1700, the time when Europeans had the upper hand in money and power, which was not so before the 1600s, the time that Newton used algebra to deduce cosmic laws of physics.
Philosophy departments rarely offer courses on Islamic philosophy or logic, and few departments of any subject study Islamic literature, philosophy, or science. In a recent book (2005) on al-Farabi, one of the most important Aristotelian logicians for later European logic, the author begins by stating we have many, many excellent studies of the ancient Greeks, and medieval Europeans, but “our” (European) understanding of Farabi and the history of Islamic logic is “in its infancy.” Meanwhile, Farabi’s face is on the Khazakstani dollar. As with Indian and Chinese thought, Islamic thought is covered, if at all, as Religious Studies, not as philosophy or the history of science.
I enjoy teaching Indian, Greek and Chinese comparative philosophy, and if you study these subjects, you will eventually find that understanding Islamic philosophy is very helpful, but quite hard to do, because there has been a greater appreciation of Indian and Chinese culture and thought in European scholarship and counter-cultural movements that involve the Bay Area, San Francisco and Berkeley. Some have said this could be an example of the grandfather effect: If everyone in the family gives heck to the next one over, then the grandfather gives heck to the father, the father gives heck to the son, and so the grandfather and son share a bond, giving and getting heck from the father, the middleman, and they can go out for ice-cream.
Islam fought Europe, India and China, taking land, captives and converts. This is why it is easier for we, and other scholars of East and South Asia, to avoid and ignore the positive side of Islam. I have some excellent Ahadith, sayings of the prophet Mohammed, the second source of Islam after the Koran, much like the Jewish Talmud, which give a more positive view of Islam as a source of multiculturalism, science and logic: – Go in quest of knowledge, even unto China. – It is better to teach knowledge one hour in the night than to pray straight through it. – A moment’s reflection is better than 60 years devotion. – The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyrs.
Many times after quoting these lines, first to professors and fellow graduate students, and then to my own students, I have been asked how Muslims can say such things and also be so authoritarian and traditional in ways. Humanity is always capable, and in each civilization openly displays, both intelligence and ignorance, both innovation and brutality. We should use the best and the worst of Islamic civilization to better understand the best and the worst of our own. Americans are seen by many Europeans in the same light, as sex-repressed, illogical, violent people who threaten logic, decency and civilization with pride, wealth, and power.
Consider that 1492 was not simply the year Columbus sailed the ocean blue, for India, to get around the Muslims between India, him and Spain, but the year that Spain was reconquered from Muslims by Christians, and then Portugal soon after, as well as the first year of the Spanish Inquisition, and then the Portuguese Inquisition, the infamous persecutions of Jews and others deemed heretical by the Church. Jews and Christians who were not Catholic such as Nestorians fled to Islamic lands from Catholic persecutions. Jews went from thriving and contributing much scholarship in Islamic Spain to outright persecution and secrecy underground in a year’s time. Maimonides (1135 – 1204 CE), the famous Jewish philosopher who thankfully lived long before all of this in Cordoba, Spain, and said he read Aristotle but could not understand him at all, until he read Farabi, which solved everything to perfection.
Few European Christians are aware of the reverence that Muslims hold for Jesus, who is mentioned in the Quran more than anyone, the greatest prophet before Mohammed, and Mohammed isn’t mentioned much, as he’s the one hearing it from God. According to Islam, Jesus did not claim to be the solitary son of God, but rather taught that all are equally daughters and sons of God, and Muslims study the Torah and New Testaments and finding this in the words of Jesus himself. For Muslims, Jesus is the patron saint of scholars and wisdom, similar to Confucius in China, who also centers his philosophy on compassion, and Jesus sounds much like Confucius in many of the sayings attributed to him by Muslims.
The one who has learned and taught is great in the kingdom of heaven.
When asked how he could perform miracles such as walking on water, he asked in return, “Are stone, mud and gold all equal in your sight?”
When asked, “Teacher, who are the people of my race?”, Jesus said, “All the children of Adam, and that which you would not have done to yourself, do not do to others”.
When asked “Who was your teacher?”, Jesus replied, “No one taught me. I saw the ugliness of ignorance and avoided it.”
When we touch a table or look at a wall, what part of the experience is objective, and which part is subjective? Is the solidity or surface itself simply objective, and is it something different than the subjective experience and feeling we get interacting with it? It is difficult to say what is the form of the object itself and what is formed by the mind of the subject, a problem that has plagued philosophy all over the world at least since words were written down.
One of the most confusing things about what we call objectivity and subjectivity, which are words with several syllables that no one can simply point to or explain very well, even when they do try, is the modern contradiction of many saying logic and mathematics are symbolic abstractions, images on paper or thoughts in the mind, but also that they are the underlying objective truth, not intangibly abstract, but the reality of the real itself. We have believed in invisible spirits, gods, and laws ruling things, as their very essence, and Greek, Islamic and European logicians often speak these ways about logic and truth.
Between the ancient Greeks, such as Aristotle, who thought the gods, our superiors, are rational, but also physical, like Aristotle’s unmoved mover, and modern Europeans, such as Descartes, who thought the soul, our innermost self, is immaterial, but superior to the lowly physical body, like the gods, with no French Christian in Descartes’ time daring to say God was a physical being for fear of being tortured as a heretic, there were Muslims, like Farabi and Avicenna, who argue thought, much like we imagine math, is ideal, and mental, thus not physical, like a fire in the head of the ancient world.
Muslims thus stand as a bridge between ancient polytheism, monotheism, and modern abstractions found in philosophy, science, mathematics, and logic. Islamic society developed new practices of imagination and abstraction, representing things as symbols, images, pictures and words, such as number symbols and psychological terms, and this fits the mental becoming more like an image, as something higher and meaningful, but strangely as immaterial and unreal, superior but invisible, graspable but beyond at the same time.
A base 10 system of symbols that represents reality is an easy number for us because we often have it in front of us as fingers, which often serve as a counting device, with five and five making ten together, a simple addition problem. Once we have number words we can count our fingers, as we can use our fingers to point at other things and count them. Counting boards of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome and abacuses of China also group things by tens and tens of tens to count larger groups of things with a decimal, ten-based system. The Babylonians had a six-based system we still use to tell time, with 60 minutes to an hour, and there are basic sixes in the five fingers and hand, with six including the palm for counting, as well as the head, torso, arms and legs as six. There are some tribes that count to twenty quickly using their knees, hands, feet and other parts to stand for particular numbers.
Beyond four or five, we lose count of things, like Danzig says of crows. On the one hand, we could say four or five good things about things, but on the other hand, we could say four or five bad things about the same things. Cultures share the words more and less before they share words for particular numbers, and then they often do not have words beyond ten or twelve, just as we say twelve but then thirteen, which is clearly three-ten in a way twelve isn’t two-ten. Beyond twelve, two sixes, countable on both hands. The word calculate is based on the Latin calculus, which means pebble, like a pebble on a counting board. To calculate, particularly before algebra replaced previous practices like counting boards and abacuses with written symbols that we can work mechanistically, as a form of language that functions like a piece of counting and calculating technology.
The Egyptians had a base 10 system, but they sometimes wrote numbers in various orders, as two ones, one ten, and three hundreds to mean three hundred and twelve, but order doesn’t matter, so 1, 1, 10, 100, 100, 100 is one way of writing it, but you could also write 1, 10, 100, 1, 100, 100 or 100, 1, 100, 10, 100, 1, as with a small number of numbers, less than five, we can count the numbers and add them together all the same. The Roman method is actually a 5 based system, as there are 5s (V), and other 5 based numbers as basic structures such that placing a one to the left or right of the five, unlike with the Egyptian method, matters.
The Indian numerals, which Islamic scholars used as the basis for algebra, is even better than the Roman improvement on the Egyptian numerals, as it has an order more like the Romans, but is a simple decimal system like the Egyptians, without fives or counting backwards or forwards from them. The Roman numeral system actually has seven symbols, I, V, X, L, C, D and M, for 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, 500 and 1,000, but the Indian numeral system has ten symbols, and uses all ten to count from one to ten, unlike the Roman numerals, which make us count up or back as it uses three symbols, I (one), V (five) and X (ten) to count from one to ten. This means Roman numbers are often much longer, like the strange long dates in Roman numerals on movies only some can read, using twelve symbols to say 1981, what Indian numerals can say in four, but if we want algebra to handle long division, taking steps to determine which number between one and ten several symbols are each time is preventatively difficult.
Before Islamic algebra, much of the world used the Egyptian doubling method (including ancient Greece and Rome) to do division. Unfortunately, this method could not keep track of remainders and could not take account of series and other functions critical to the growth of math, trade and mechanical technology. Islamic mathematicians and logicians took the Indian base 10 system, along with the Indian numerals that became our Indian-Arabic numerals we use today, and began doing math in the form of equations. Algebra allowed trade caravans to keep greater accounts of goods, as well as sophisticated forms of insurance and banking. Islamic merchants traded by caravan all the way up through Russia and Scandinavia, as coins discovered attest.
European Castles are modeled on Islamic questles, the Persian word for fort, far more than they are on Roman palisades, forts surrounded by log fences. Medieval dress and decoration are not modeled on Roman togas, but rather Persian and Turkish fashions. Consider hospitals with many beds, doses measured with algebra, and mechanical innovations that use gears, pistons and clocks were all passed from Islamic to European hands before Europe became wealthy and powerful. Europe owes very much to Islamic mechanics and mathematics.
Central to logic, it was with Islamic mathematics, logic and science that equations became the language and device that structures our modern shared world. The ancient Greeks such as Euclid and Aristotle talked out problems in long spoken form. Today, many scholars use algebraic logic to explain ancient Greek ideas, but it can be quite anachronistic and misleading to do this without acknowledging Islamic contributions. For instance, the syllogisms of Aristotle seem much clearer and cleaner when presented in variables and equations of first India and then Islamic algebra. While Aristotle reasoned that if Socrates is a man, and all men are mortal, then Socrates is mortal, we today, using variables, can say that if all As are Bs, and all Bs are Cs, then all As are Cs, speaking about any groups or individuals.
One of the sources of algebraic science was code-breaking or cryptography (also cryptanalysis). Between questles, codes had to be sent and algebra was used to make and break these codes. As nature was studied with mathematics, the philosophers and scientists discovered that algebra is an amazing tool for code-breaking nature. What we call “science” is still very much the mathematical decoding of nature today. Consider the constant of gravity as a hidden code or message to be discovered and phrased in algebraic language. As Islamic scientists began using algebra to crack the codes of nature, they believed that they were finding the numbers that were the thoughts and speech of God. Islamic art, which makes much use of geometric patterns, reflects this too. Isaac Newton, like many Muslim scientists, believed that mathematics is the language of nature, laws pronounced in mathematics by God over nature which cannot be contradicted.
Algebraic equations allowed for Wittgenstein’s later truth table logic and other forms that we study as Logic today. However, equations present us with a new problem that was recognized by the central philosophers of the golden age of Islamic civilization: Is the world truly structured by equations, or are they a model in the human mind?
Consider the infamous proof that one equals two. Say that we start with two variables, a and b, and that they are equal. If we multiply both sides by b, then subtract a squared, then factor out (b – a), we are left with (a = b + a), which is the same thing as saying a is equal to twice itself, which is the same thing as saying that one is equal to two. How did we come to such a ridiculous conclusion?
This is one example where the mechanics of algebraic mathematics breaks down, and we have to add additional components, such as the rule that we cannot divide by zero. When we factor out (b – a) and then eliminate it, it is easy to forget that if b and a are equal, we are dividing by zero, and should be left with infinity equal to twice itself, not a equal to twice itself. The rule has to be added to the system much as a safety device has to be added to a machine to prevent it from breaking down in particular circumstances, like a safety valve that releases steam when it builds up to critical levels. This is good evidence that mathematics is a human cultural practice, not an ideal self-existent structure.
In 529 CE, the Roman emperor Justinian closed Plato’s Academy, which sent several prominent members to the Royal Court of Persia, what is today Iran. Greek works were translated into Syrian, and then with Islam a century later, Arabic. This is the time when Pseudo-Dionysius, a.k.a. Fake Dennis, wrote his Neo-Platonic skeptical mysticism and angelology in Syrian, a major source of Christian Platonism and philosophy, and this and other Platonic and Aristotelian works were increasingly brought to Baghdad, the seat of the Abbasid dynasty. Fake Dennis, Dionysius, is “fake” because the original Dionysius was the first Christian bishop of Athens, and the later Syrian wrote under the same name, and was thought wrongly to be him. Dionysius argued positive and negative knowing, belief and doubt, katophania and apophania, work back and forth dialectically to bring our consciousness into the greater light.
Debates about logic, grammar, law, theology and philosophy between Muslims, Christians and Jews in Arabic were held in royal courts for centuries from the time of Mohammed to the present day, but it was particularly in its golden age from 800 to 1200 CE, from Al-Kindi’s discussions of the scientific, experimental method to Averroes’ extensive commentaries on Aristotle. The Greek word philosophia was transliterated in Arabic as falsafa, distinguished from kalam, theology, which also involves logic, argument and debate.
Al-Ma’mun (786-833 CE) was the most passionate caliph in supporting scholarship and science, creating an environment that encouraged free thought and debate like no other Islamic ruler. His father, al-Rashid, had diplomatic ties with Emperors of China and Charlemagne in Europe, and sent Charlemagne an elephant and elaborate brass water clock. In return, Charlemagne gave al-Rashid what may have been the world’s largest emerald. At the time, Baghdad was the largest city in the world, with a population of more than a million, far larger than Athens or Rome had ever been.
The grand vizier (minister) Ja’far, featured in the 10,001 Nights (as well as Aladdin, unfortunately as the villain) was Ma’mun’s personal tutor, and instilled in him a lifelong love of knowledge and scholarship. Ma’mun mastered theology, history, poetry, mathematics and philosophy while young, and was particularly gifted at kalam, dialectical debate and argument. Al-Ma’mun was a supporter of the Mu’tazilites, who openly questioned literal interpretations of the Qur’an, and he founded the House of Wisdom, a center for study and inquiry which drew scholars and philosophers from all over his empire to Baghdad, becoming central to the Islamic Golden Age.
Al-Kindi (801-873), the first major Islamic philosopher, was a pioneer in the sciences, cryptography and the experimental method. He was also one of the scholars that introduced Indian numerals and base ten system to Islam, where it was developed along with other Indian as well as Greek ideas into Algebra. He wrote numerous medical treatises, including the memorable Treatise on Diseases caused by Phlegm. I still haven’t read it, but I still remember the title. Unlike Galileo and Newton, but like Einstein, Al-Kindi argued that time and space are relative, as all things save Being itself (God) are relative, subjective, and contingent, dependent on other things. Modern scholarship often says that he merged Neo-Platonism and Aristotle together, but he also incorporated Persian Zoroastrianism and Indian logic.
Even though Christians in Europe followed Islamic Alchemy and Astrology for centuries after al-Kindi’s death, he was an early voice against both, saying they were both pseudo-sciences and that the best method of knowledge is strict observation and experimentation. While ancient cultures observed the natural world and attempted to explain it, mechanical innovations from China as well as developments in mathematics allowed for experiments to be mechanically set up and recorded, extending beyond mere observation with experimentation. Humanity has always been experimenting with things, but cultures of regular, mechanical and mathematical experimentation became what we know as the specialized, mechanized sciences.
Abu Nasr al-Farabi (870 – 950 CE) is known as the Second Teacher in Islamic philosophy, as he brought Aristotelian logic into Islamic thought and made it central, which connected Boethius (d. 525 CE) to Abelard (d. 1141) in France, passing Greek logic from Roman to medieval European hands along with others. While al-Kindi (d. 866 CE) and al-Razi (d. 925) brought Greek philosophy into Islamic thought, it is al-Farabi, and following him Avicenna and Averroes, who focused on Aristotelian Peripatetic logic and what it can and can’t say.
Farabi was born in Farab, conveniently, what is today Kazakstan, northern lands of what was Persia, and his family was Turkish, from the lands Greeks and Persians fought over in Aristotle’s time. After working as a gardener in Damascus, Syria, he moved to Baghdad and devoted himself to studying Arabic, which he didn’t know, as he spoke Turkish, as well as all the logic and philosophy he could in Syriac and Arabic with the famous logician Abu Bishr Matta (d. 911) and Ibn Haylan. Farabi was a great musician who wrote primary studies on music theory, and it is said that he once played for al-Dawlah, ruler of Aleppo, so well that he moved everyone to tears, then made them all laugh until they fell asleep, while Farabi quietly left. He wrote many books on cosmology, politics and logic, traveled, taught, and died in Damascus in 950 CE, almost 650 years before Descartes, the first major modern European philosopher, was born in France in 1594.
There was a famous debate between Abu Bishr Matta, Farabi’s teacher and leading logican of Baghdad, and al-Sirafi, a famed jurist and grammarian, in front of Vizier Ibn al-Furat in 932 CE. Matta argued logic is a tool for judging right and wrong words. Sirafi said it seems debate is a matter for grammarians, and wondered what Greek logic could do to help guard a Turk, Indian or Arab against speaking incorrectly. Matta answered that logic grasps concepts that underly all languages, such that grammar and culture are irrelevant to what is true or false in any and all languages. Islamic philosophers often mention that Islam includes many cultures together as one understanding and meaning, such as the Sufi poet Rumi, who appropriated the Indian Jain metaphor of the blind men and the elephant.
Al-Farabi’s theory of certainty centers on perfect agreement, on the highest certainty in what can be known and is known to not possibly be otherwise, and how Aristotle’s syllogisms, when used correctly, can provide this, which leads to happiness and fulfillment. While most people are only capable of theology, only the philosopher can learn the forms of complete agreement, which is participation with the perfect thought of God as far us mortals can. Al-Farabi studied and commented on all of the Organon, the logical works of Aristotle, and the Greek Neo-Platonist commentaries of Plotinus and Porphyry on Aristotle as well. Some, the few who have read and studied his works, say his Terms Used In Logic (al-Alfaz al-Musta’malah fi’l-Mantiq) and other introductory treatises on logic and commentaries on the Organon are unsurpassed until modern times, making more sense of Aristotle than anyone had so far, perhaps even Aristotle himself.
Farabi called his Platonism, with plenty of Aristotelianism, his foreign philosophy (al-Hikmah al-Mashriqiyah), often translated as oriental philosophy, as the word oriental was used, quite simply, to mean foreign by European translators, covering Asia, Africa and the Americas. Al-Farabi says we should borrow some, but not all of the Greek logical terms, and some from the Arabic grammarians, similar to the Hindu grammarians of India, including what, how, which and why to seek the reasons for things with logic. While grammarians, Farabi says, study the relationship between words, terms and sentences, the logicians study the relationship between concepts (ma’ani), thoughts and meanings, according to rules that Farabi thinks Aristotle began to articulate and he attempts to clarify. Farabi argues that logic (mantiq) is etymologically derived from the word for speech (nutq), and that ancient philosophers used inward speech to grasp mental concepts, the “intelligibles” of things beyond their physical form, and outward speech to point to physical objects.
Farabi argues being (mawjud) is most fundamental to logic as a category and term, as it applies to each of the other categories, if they are categories, and exist, and it applies to things as well as what is true, what stands and exists, and being is the term closest in meaning to truth, more than any other word. Substance or stuff is jawhar, which Farabi says etymologically means jewel in Persian, possibly because substance is the most precious and primary of the categories, what is and exists, and he argues that Aristotle considered actual existing individuals primary substances, and universals secondary substances, possibly mental as opposed to physical. Farabi says that a definition (hadd) is a statement of the essential categories, while a description is a statement of accidental, inessential differences, giving us the examples Man is a rational animal, the famous statement of Aristotle, as an example of a definition, and Man is a laughing animal, sadly, as an example of mere, inessential description. Nietzsche said, “Man is the only animal that laughs, or needs to,” likely mocking Aristotle and unfamiliar with al-Farabi.
Farabi says logic is a tool that produces certainty when used properly in all arts, and in all the practical and theoretical sciences. Farabi argues, using and extending an example found in the Nyaya Sutra, that if we know that a cloud always has a rippling wind, and this wind causes the sound of thunder when clouds bump into each other, we can say, syllogistically, that the cloud causes the sound, and we can also, he adds, define thunder thus, as the sound made by rippling wind in clouds colliding, which is how it is caused, created and so speciated. A definition has two parts, genus and differendum for Aristotle, the larger group that the thing shares with other things, and what can be said of it that it is different from the other things of the same set. As such, thunder is a type of sound, and, to differentiate it from other sounds, it is specifically the sound made by rippling wind in clouds colliding.
Farabi gives the example of a circle, which can be defined as a figure with a line with all points equidistant from the center, which means, he strangely argues, that a line itself can’t be a figure. If a figure is a larger group, and circle is a member of the set, and a certain sort of line is part of what differentiates members of the set from each other, then Farabi reasons that figure is the largest set, circle smaller, and lines incidental differences. This is odd, as reptiles can be four-footed, and so can mammals, but if all mammals and reptiles are not then neither reptile nor four-footed is simply a larger group, but rather an intersecting set, and snakes have no feet, humans have two, as Plato and Diogenes both know while arguing over a chicken. Venn diagrams are better at this than a tree of superior One differentiating into inferior many. This is also strangely similar to Hui Shi’s paradox that a four sided figure is more than four sided if it is a figure, as one side is contained by the lines but not a line itself.
Al-Farabi argued that thought, identified Platonically with sight and the imagination, is in the heart, which can imitate what we sense to understand and represent, and create to reason and speculate. Farabi uses the example of imagining evil as symbolized by darkness, which is seeing darkness and feeling evil in the imagination. Farabi calls genius overflow of imagination. Farabi argues that poetry is good for improving the imagination, which is useful in all thinking and studied subjects, but poetry can nobly direct the rational faculty to higher forms and moderate our emotions, or it can stimulate the baser emotions and pleasures, which leads to weakness of constitution and character.
Farabi argues this is how Mohammed and other prophets teach and inspire humanity through images, metaphors and analogies, as they have an overabundance of thought, imagination and meaning that helps them see images others can feel. Angered by dismissals of Aristotle and those who studied Greek works, al Farabi argued that logic was already found in reasoning from the seen to the unseen in theology and law, and could be used to further strengthen both. Many Islamic philosophers argued, following Farabi, that philosophy and science are perfectly in accord with Islam to defend against charges of heresy, much as later European philosophers and scientists did. Many Christian scholars worked to translate Farabi’s Arabic works on logic into Latin, including Herman the German (d. 1272), who actually worked and lived in Toledo, Spain, not Ohio.
Ibn Sina (980-1037), whose name was Latinized by Christian Europeans as Avicenna, is often called the greatest of the Islamic philosophers, much as Plato is the most popular and extensive in influence of Greek philosophers, Confucius of Chinese philosophers, Buddha of Indian philosophers, and Kant for German philosophers, for supporters and critics alike, such that the course of Islamic philosophy is taught as leading up to and then stemming from the work of Avicenna, by Islamic scholars of the golden age and today in modern scholarship. Islamic logic began in Islamic courts of law from the beginning, but by the year 1000, largely thanks to Farabi and Avicenna, Aristotelian Peripatetic logic was the dominant tradition of using logic to show strengths and faults in arguments. By 1100, Avicenna had taken Aristotle’s place as his superior. While Averroes turned back to Aristotle from Avicenna and Europeans followed him, Islamic philosophy followed Avicenna, and Averroes became more popular in Europe than he ever was in the Islamic world.
Avicenna was born in the village of Afshana in what is today Uzbekistan, his father the governor of a larger, nearby village they didn’t live in, which is an interesting strategy employed today in DC. As a boy Avicenna is said to have learned Indian Arithmetic from an Indian grocer in his neighborhood, read all the Greek philosophy he could find, boiled it down in his notes to the essential points and then rearranged the points into as coherent arguments as he could, producing vast commentaries on many subjects as needed, and he claims to have learned nothing after the age of 18, having read all the texts he could by then, and then maturing year by year as he thought over what he learned.
Avicenna is said to be the foremost doctor of his time, and his Canon of Medicine, translated into Latin like his name, was used as a textbook for Europeans up until the 1700s, as Europe passed the Islamic world in power. His medical practice was based on experimentation and clinical trials, as al-Kindi endorses, fusing Persian, Greek, Indian and other medical traditions together. He hypothesized that diseases are caused by microscopic organisms, randomized control trials, as well as invented terms for hallucinations, insomnia, mania, dementia, epilepsy and syndromes. He was the first to correctly show the workings of the eye, arguing that light does not emanate from the mind and through the eyes in perception, as we do not see in the dark, but rather light goes into the eye from outside, contradicting Aristotle, correctly.
Avicenna was an essential author for understanding Aristotle and scientific investigation, even as he argued against Aristotle on many points. Avicenna claims to use intuition (hads) to judge Aristotle and the Peripatetics, and say whether they should have come to other conclusions or not. Avicenna reinterpreted sections of Aristotle’s Prior Analytics and On Interpretation, two central books of the Organon, and this took the place of Farabi’s faithful Aristotle as the dominant theory of Islamic logic and philosophy, and interest fell away from the others. The Shamsiyya of al Katibi, one of the most popular logic textbooks in human history, focuses on formal questions of Avicenna on these topics.
For Avicenna, intention, or meaning is ma’nan, an idea, the form or essence apprehended by the soul or mind, much as we understand images we see to have meaning beyond the image involved with its form, as well as universal concepts and categories, which mean things, grasping necessity of being or not, beyond the thing perceived. We get the word intention in English from the Latin intentio, which was used to translate ma’nan into the Latin. As the Mad Hatter tells Alice, we really should say what we mean, and mean what we say. This is essence and existence, the mental intent and verbal form, meaning and saying together.
Following Aristotle, Avicenna says there are many ways we grasp things as abstractions, as meanings, such as perception, in which we see color and form with the eye, common sense, imagination, memory, and the highest, intellect. It is not clear if what we call reasoning is common sense, intellect or some combination of these, along with the others, but understanding is grasping things in these ways. The Greek doctor Galen located these in the brain, as did his followers, while others, such as Farabi, located them in the heart, following Aristotle. Avicenna thinks that imagination as highest intellect is always active when we are awake, and our minds wander, or asleep, and our minds dream, but we can direct the wandering mind by placing it under the intellect, which is thinking, which involves the analysis and synthesis, splitting things apart and putting things together, of syllogistic Aristotelian reasoning.
Avicenna argues a sheep can see, smell, hear and, if unlucky, touch a wolf with external senses, which is all fed from the senses into fantasia, common sense. Avicenna says a sheep does not have a human intellect, but does grasp intentions, as in the wolf, what he calls estimation (wahm), what could also be called concern or care, perception of intentions, which are invisible but can be felt, not seen, smelled, heard or touched with the outer senses. The sheep cannot see danger, or the wolf’s wrath, but can put it together with a basic sort of sense which must be internal, something the mind of the sheep adds to the sights and sounds of the wolf. It is not entirely clear in the example if Avicenna means the sheep merely feels the wolf is dangerous, its own fear, or if the sheep feels the wolf’s desire, recognizing it as a creature with motives that are threatening instinctively. Avicenna argues that it is basic to the retentive imagination of the sheep, which we share but also have higher inner senses, and ultimately the imagination and intellect, giving us no clear explanation of where the sheep’s fear comes from, either from instinct or conditioning.
As mentioned with Farabi, Islamic philosophers increasingly turned to the human mind and imagination as the source of reality. Consider that Avicenna, a doctor, was treating patients for hallucinations and dementia while thinking about philosophy and the mind. While Aristotle understood universals, such as the group of all elephants, as a physical set of things, Avicenna argued against Aristotle, by name, that universals are conceptions of the mind, fantasies of sense and imagination. When we speak of elephants, we are talking about our concept, not the set of elephants that currently exist. This is the great debate between essence and existence of Avicenna and Averroes. Does our term elephant refer to what we think, or all actual elephants? Averroes argued that Aristotle is right, and Avicenna is wrong, that the term does not refer to our concept of elephant, but to all physical elephants.
Before Avicenna, the Mutazilites had argued that the most general category of thought is the thing, like Farabi says of being, and things can be further divided into existent and non-existent things. Without a thing, there is no subject for words to communicate anything. In the Quran, it says that God merely has to say to a non-existent thing, BE, and then it is. It is unclear where God finds these non-existents to talk into existence, however, and Mutazilites argued with others about whether non-existents are already in the mind of God or not, much like all possible universes necessarily existing, but in potency, as the infinite imagination of God, which God can make immediately actual.
The Mutazilites, like Avicenna, argued that thoughts, mental categories such as horses, are fictional and non-existent, unlike actual horses and physical objects, so thoughts are, themselves, non-existent, in the same way, they argued, that the concept of unicorns is mental, and non-existent, and so are the unicorns, which also don’t exist, unlike horses but like the idea of them. Our ideas about horses and unicorns are equally real, but imaginary, not physical, and there are physical horses our idea of horses refers to in the world, which is not true of our idea of unicorns, as far as we know from our senses, internal and external.
Avicenna argued that the essence of a thing is its definition, what mental categories can properly describe and contain it, but its existence is its individuality, which is not a mental category. Many who followed Avicenna, such as Suhrawardi (d. 1191) argued essence is primary, superior to objects, while others, such as Mulla Sadra (d. 1640) argued essence is a secondary mental construct. Whether or not they took the side of Avicenna, whatever it may be, most Islamic philosophers, and many Christian Europeans, argued in terms Avicenna framed, even as many, but not all Christian European philosophers preferred traditional Aristotle and Averroes to Avicenna. Sartre, the French founder of Existentialism in the 1940s, argued that existence precedes essence, not the other way around. What he means is very different from Avicenna, that we make meaning, which is secondary to physical, disorganized and illogical existence, actual daily life, deliberately unhinged from the thought of God, taking after Nietzsche.
All of this may seem strange, for a thing to not exist as particularly what it is, but consider that possibilities and potentialities don’t exist, but do, as far as we talk and think about them. Consider someone thinking of opening door one or door two, and can’t do both, so the possibility of opening door A and door B are conflicting and real possibilities, but where are these possibilities? Are they physically real? Are they mental? Some speak as if they are physical realities, like Averroes, but not Avicenna, who like the Mutazilites, treats mental concepts and categories as physically unreal but mentally potent, as capable of producing understanding even if they are not physically existent, like our use of the example of unicorns, which don’t exist, and so serve as a perfectly fine example of an idea that doesn’t “truly” exist.
Whether or not we are determinists, and say there is only one possible future, or open the possibility of free will or chaos, and say there could be multiple possibilities, the possibilities that contradict each other can’t be real and present and remain possibilities. On the one hand, you and I say and agree that there are two possibilities, but on the other we can’t say that something actual is present, because neither door has been opened, and they can’t be equally opened. We share, with others, imaginary space where we imagine possibilities to figure things out, which is what we call part of reality, but it is imaginary and mental, not real. Otherwise, our concepts of horses and unicorns are both equally real, whether or not the idea corresponds to actual things, when in fact both are real as potential, mental things that may or may not go on to correspond to actual objects. Hegel later argued in Germany that possibilities are real, existent examples of types of non-being, which he also understands, like Avicenna, in terms of Platonic and Aristotelian potencies.
Avicenna’s floating man thought experiment should be important and included in any Intro Philosophy class because it is strikingly similar to Descartes’ Deceiving Demon, one of the first major concepts of modern European philosophy. Avicenna, who worked with anesthetics in hospitals such as opium, asks us to imagine that we are slowly unable to feel our feet, then body, then sight and sensation, then memory and imagination. What is left, the last and most essential thing that is ourselves? Avicenna replies that it is consciousness, our awareness of existing even if we cannot think of who or what we are. With that, we still can be said to exist. Without that, it can be said that we are no longer there.
Descartes has us imagine that there is a demon who is deceiving us and creating the world as an illusion, but the one thing the demon can not trick us about is that we are aware. Descartes concludes his argument with the famous declaration, “I think, therefore I am”, though it would be more accurate to say, “I am aware, therefore I am”, the conclusion of Avicenna, as thinking can be removed while awareness remains. Where does the deceiving demon of Descartes come from? The Cathars, Gnostic Manichaean Christians persecuted in France in the 1400s, believed that this world is a lie ruled by Satan, much like the shadows on the wall of Plato’s Cave. The Catholic Church denounced this as heresy, arguing that God rules the world and speaks through the Church. Avicenna uses anesthetics rather than a demon.
Ibn Rushd, known Latinized to Europeans as Averroes (1126-1198), lived, studied and taught in Cordoba, Spain, like Maimonides. He wrote commentaries on all of Aristotle’s works, and like Avicenna was central for Europe’s understanding of Aristotle. Against the Sufi mystic al-Ghazali’s book The Incoherence of the Philosophers, Averroes wrote The Incoherence of the Incoherence, arguing against skepticism for the pursuit of universal knowledge. For Averroes, the grasp of the cognitive is the fruit, the real meaning, and the sensibles are the external rinds, like the tough outside of a cantaloupe, the wolf-song melon, also known as a Persian melon, which came from South Asia to Europe by way of the Italian province known by the same name.
While Avicenna followed much of Farabi’s Neoplatonic Aristotelianism, Averroes, the third of the great three Islamic philosophers, was quite opposed to the first two, particularly their rather Mutazilite idea that God is absolutely necessary, and acts necessarily, without freedom, but the world is contingent and possible, dependent on God as necessary and as its source. Averroes argued that the world, as some Islamic theologians do argue, much like Calvinist Christians, that God is free to act as God pleases, but the world is absolutely deterministic, as God knows and causes everything to happen before it happens, such that if something happens in the future, as Muslims say, it will happen inshallah, if God wills it, never making absolute human judgements about the future, not because God doesn’t already know what’s going to happen, but because we human beings can’t possibly know what is fated to come. The saying works either way.
Averroes rejects Avicenna’s faculty of estimation in animals, saying sensation and imagination in animals is all that is needed. He substitutes the internal sense cogitation for estimation, and denies the distinction between the two types of imagination, giving him four. For Avicenna, imagination can grasp objects that are nonexistent, but estimation grasps invisible intentions that do exist, and are particular things, not universal types, such as the sheep feeling that wolf is angry over there, not that anger is generally in wolves overall.
Averroes argues that colors and forms exist in a nobler way in the soul than in the object, oddly like abstract expressionists say in modern art, noting that an object cannot be black and white in the same way at once, but the eye can see black and white at the same time, admitting more with mind in experience than the material can admit in the object. While a small object cannot fit in a larger one, the eye can contain the whole horizon, as much as our senses can admit, even though the eye is a tiny sphere, which shows us the power of the mind and soul in the eye.
Many scholars did not like the formalities of studying logic, such as Iben al-Salah (d. 1245), who argued that no one needs Aristotelian logic, as God gave everyone common sense, which is clearly more useful. The juror Ign Tamiyya (d. 1328) argued that syllogisms are perfectly true, but absurdly useless and needlessly difficult. It was only with Sir Francis Bacon in the 1600s declaring Aristotle’s syllogisms, his forms of reasoning, as too rigid for the progress of the sciences that Europe turned from Averroism.