"Segne den Becher, welcher überfließen will, daß das Wasser golden aus ihm fließe und überallhin den Abglanz deiner Wonne trage!" – Nietzsche

Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason

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The question that practical reason asks us is, what ought I to do? In Critique of Practical Reason, Kant offers his analysis of how pure reason, which relies on no empirical input whatsoever, can help us answer that question.

As a follow up to Critique of Pure Reason, this book is a grave disappointment. Altogether abandoning the exacting critical standards he established in his earlier, better work, Kant argues on behalf of an ethical theory that I find intellectually flawed and personally repugnant. It is a morality of pious bureaucrats who distrust anything emotional (for Kant, feelings are “pathological”), contingent (i.e., “real” or “actual”), or human.

In brief, Kant argues that the proper standard for evaluating the moral merit of an action is twofold. First, the act must conform to a maxim of pure reason that is universally binding on all rational agents in all times and in all places (a “categorical imperative”). Such an imperative follows from pure reason, which can only deal with the form of argument, and not with particulars, which are by definition derived from empirical experience. Second, the act must be undertaken only and exactly because it is judged by a rational agent to follow from pure reason, not from any kind of desire or expectation about the outcome.

Kant’s argument suffers from several extremely serious problems.

First, Kant never establishes why maxims derived from pure reason are eo ipso laudable. It is not at all obvious to me that any action that is good for all people to do always is necessarily better than any action that is good for some people to do sometimes.

In his eagerness to eschew all sentiment and human response to ethical evaluation, he in fact does quite the opposite, and reveals again and again his own profound personal connection to the idea of reason. That it should not also be equally valued by all never occurs to him.

Second, his theory demands that moral agents freely choose to comply with the directives of pure practical reason, but his theory establishing freewill is extremely weak. Readers of the Critique of Pure Reason may in fact remember that the question of determinism is one of his antimonies of pure reason, and is used in that book as an example of a pseudo-problem that philosophy can never either prove or disprove.

Third, his attempt to dodge that problem by arguing that freedom of the subject is a postulate of pure reason is completely unconvincing, and is a transparent attempt to circumvent the limits he himself persuasively established. He offers a whole series of additional postulates, offered as hypotheses that reason cannot do without, and all of them just happen to conform with the sacred cows of Lutheran dogma.

Fourth, he brazenly ignores his own dialectical analysis of virtue and happiness by positing them in this very work as an antimony, and then siding with the theory of virtue nonetheless.

Fifth, his conception of a categorical imperative is underdeveloped. In Critique of Pure Reason he famously derides philosophers who condescend to give examples, but I sure could have used a few here. I genuinely have no idea what he thinks a good example of a categorical imperative would be. “One ought to do the right thing”? “Always tell the truth”? “Never take what is not freely given”? “Be kind to your parents”? No idea.

Sixth, his theory substantially relies on the claim that the theory he describes conforms to what is usually meant by “morality.” That is far from true. Although impartiality and generality are common parts of what people generally mean by the term, they are at best necessary but not sufficient.

In addition to being philosophically problematic, I recoil from the ugly spirit of Kant’s vision, which reminds me of the very worst excesses of Calvin and Luther – the hushed awe before the altar of solemnity, grandeur, majesty, duty, obligation, and obedience, and the covert terror that someone might be secretly and on some level enjoying themselves. I find his vision shockingly life-denying.

Kant is not the first great thinker to apply himself to the problem of practical reason. Thomas Aquinas, for example, also distinguished between speculative and practical reason, and elaborated his own theory of how people should act. For Aquinas, this answer is rooted in his concept of synderesis, an inner faculty of what we might today call “moral intuition,” which directly perceives the rightness or wrongness of a thing.

For all of Kant’s fetishization of reason, I actually find Aquinas’ approach far more rational, and far more honest, for he freely admits that his determinations are based in part on intuition, sentiment, and his belief in the truth of revelation. Kant clearly relies on these factors just as much, but wrote this entire book to persuade us otherwise.


Written by Mesocosm

March 25, 2018 at 11:46 pm

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The United States is Haunted by a Terrible Demon

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When I lived at the San Francisco Zen Center, one of the senior priests told us about a festival that was held annually in the small alpine town she grew up in in Switzerland. A certain holy relic was sequestered away in the village church, except on this festival of renewal, when it was brought out and placed on a kind of carriage, and paraded through the town in a procession. The trick was, you were not to look at it.

I think I gasped aloud when I heard that story. The ritual force of such an episode, and the life-long impact it would have on children who grew up with it, was immediately obvious. I thought of many interesting counterparts, such as the Shingon Buddhist altar I saw in Narita with a towering Buddha statue set back in an enormous stepped platform that receded into an unlit corner of the room, so that you could just make out the outlines of the statue from anywhere in the room, but  you could not quite see it. Its presence dominated the room, but it was held in a liminal state of semi-awareness. It made quite an impression.

Or I think about the mythology of similar prohibitions on seeing or doing that, for example, finds expression in my favorite fairytale collected by the Brothers Grimm, Marienkind (my translation is here).

This episode is a motif in the religious traditions and mythologies of the world because it makes an impact, such that its uncanny power is remembered decades later, on into adulthood, as the beginning of some deep stirring of the psyche, as in my teacher’s story.

I couldn’t help but think of this motif of the half-perceived sign and its potential to activate the unconscious when a friend of mine told me that her five-year-old daughter is required to participate in active shooter drills in New York. Her kindergarten class has to practice hiding and remaining quiet when someone knocks on the door.

If you don’t think this isn’t going to traumatize a generation of children, then you know nothing of psychodynamics.

There are a lot of reasons I recently moved to Germany, and there are a lot of things that Germany gets wrong, in my opinion, in managing its affairs. But one thing that it gets right, along with the rest of the developed world, with the exception of the United States, is gun control.

There are areas where I simply have to disagree with my fellow citizens. On climate change, for example, I vehemently disagree with people who deny the unambiguous consensus of the scientific community, and the other 179 nations that have joined the Paris Accords, but at least I can comprehend the other point of view, much as I disagree with it.

But I can not comprehend, or forgive, the bizarre fetishization of guns that runs amok in the United States, and that fuels a fundamentalist interpretation of the second amendment – an interpretation whose bizarre logic leads again and again to monstrous policy recommendations and a bizarre attitude of paranoia and fear.

There is a lot of talk in the United States these days about arming teachers as a first line of defense against school shooters. There are plenty of reasons to oppose such an empirically-unmotivated and obviously self-destructive posture, but one that doesn’t receive as much attention as I would like is the question of whether the people of the United States have the right to ask teachers, in addition to all that they already give and sacrifice for their careers, to put their own lives at risk acting as security officers, who must be prepared to wield lethal force against their own students.

Again, this is all quite beyond my comprehension. There is a bizarre, shadowy demon haunting the United States, and I fear it is not going away without some kind of huge catastrophe, or mass exorcism.

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March 17, 2018 at 2:07 am

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Tsong Khapa’s Three Principal Aspects of the Path

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tsongkhapaIf I had to choose, the Tibetan polymath Tsong Khapa would probably constitute the single most important figure in shaping my worldview. That isn’t to say I agree with him on everything, or consider myself by any stretch of the imagination to be a member of his Gelukpa order, but he does present the basic existential, ethical, and critical-phenomenological framework with which and against which I articulate my views of life. With him and against him I would play other key figures like Nagarjuna and Shantideva, Gendun Choephel and Gorampa, Nietzsche, James Joyce, Shakespeare, Kant, and Habermas.

As a Mahayana Buddhist philosopher, Tsong Khapa believed that the end-goal of contemplation was to liberate oneself from the habitual patterns of thought that externalize and reify the conceptual distinctions and valuations that we make in order to provide a framework for understanding the world and surviving within it. An exaggerated sense of the objective validity of the conceptual schema we use to posit objects and events in the world is ultimately founded in what the great developmental psychologist Jean Piaget considered to be the fundamental conceptual schema from which all others derive – our concept of the Self.

The psychologist George Kelly went so far as to say that the personality ultimately consists of nothing more than the habitual patterns of action and interpretation that we use to navigate the world. I think to some degree this accords with the Buddhist conception of samsara, which holds that the problem of suffering in the world results from our being unconsciously driven by our beliefs about ourselves and the world which are merely provisional, but which are instinctually taken as having objective validity.

Tsong Khapa in one short text of considerable interest posits that the Buddhist therapy of alleviating suffering rooted in such misconceptions is based on what he calls the three principal aspects of the path, which he identifies as renunciation, compassion, and wisdom, with the latter specifically referring to the wisdom which directly grasps the degree to which the world we inhabit is largely a conceptual construction of our perceptual organs and the mechanisms of our consciousness.

These may be considered three aspects of one path because they are three articulations of the same underlying insight from three different reference points.

Tsong Khapa elsewhere defines renunciation as the definitive intention to emerge [from samsara]. I consider this the best definition of the Buddhist concept of renunciation that I’ve ever heard – it places emphasis on the relinquishment of the attachment to desirable things in the world that keeps us bound to our mental constructions and valuations. In this sense, renunciation is something rather distinct from the mere asceticism it is often confused for – it is not just a change in behavior or attitude, but a recognition of the actual state of affairs. Specifically, desirable things are only desirable because we desire them, not because of any intrinsic virtue that they possess. Likewise, ownership or possession exist solely through the force of convention, and there is no greater underlying reality to the fact of ownership than the degree to which we all act as though one person owns a thing. If we all stop saying it, we stop owning it.

Compassion is an analogous insight articulated with respect to our habitual tendency to value ourselves and our own experiences more than we value other people. In Tsong Khapa’s view, this posture results from the same underlying cognitive error. In his arresting analysis of compassion in his Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, Tsong Khapa writes:

[U]nderstand that self and other are mutually dependent such that when you are aware of self, you are aware of other; and when you are aware of other, you are aware of self. It is like being aware of near mountains and distant mountains, for example.


Moreover, Shantideva’s Compendium of Training states:

By becoming accustomed to the equality of self and other,
The spirit of enlightenment becomes firm.
Self and other are interdependent.
Like this side and the other side of a river, they are false.

The far side and the near side of the river are not false in the sense that they cannot be systematically and meaningfully differentiated, they are false insofar as they are completely contingent on a judgment of the intellect based on its point of view. If you move to the other side of the river, the nature of the shore changes from “other side” to “this side.”

In that sense, the self does not exist inherently or independently, it exists in dependence upon how it is posited by consciousness. This is true of all things, according to Tsong Khapa – the present Dalai Lama has described interdependence as “Buddha’s slogan.”

That this determination of the dependent nature of existence may be extended to all things constitutes the reality of all phenomena is the third principal aspect of the path, or wisdom. In this technical sense, wisdom refers to the non-intrinsic identity of all phenomena, which ultimately depend on their causes and conditions, their spatial and temporal parts, and the way that they are designated by consciousness.

The final point, that phenomena depend on conceptual imputation for their existence, is subtle, and in my view it should not be misconstrued as a statement of idealism, such as George Berkeley would have made in holding that there is no substance or fabric of reality beyond their fact as mere appearances to consciousness. A close reading of Tsong Khapa and his sources reveals a view much closer to the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant, who held not that things are mind-only, but that insofar as we can speak of their existence in anyway whatsoever, we can only speak or analyze them from the standpoint of some consciousness. Their status as things in themselves is unknowable and indeterminate, and attempts to characterize phenomenal appearances as if they exist in themselves ultimately leads to contradiction.

The point of all this is not abstract deliberation, but the existential realization that our own misconstrual of the world and our relationship to things is harmful and deceptive, and leads us to cause suffering for others and for ourselves. I think there are times of life when the radiant nature of things shines through and we can have a direct perception

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February 21, 2018 at 2:46 am

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Berlin Dada Man-Machine

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I’ve been reading Matthew Biro’s outstanding book The Dada Cyborg: Visions of the New Human in Weimar Berlin, which focuses on German Dadaist representations of human-machine hybrids (Amazon link here).

I remember seeing a Dadaism exhibit at the De Young museum in San Francisco many years ago, and being struck by how fresh and relevant the movement still seemed. If anything that only becomes more and more true. It is an art movement largely preoccupied with the shock to the human psyche caused by the fact of mechanical reproduction.

In Biro’s account, for the Dadaist, the human-machine hybrid was a manifold symbol which represented the degree to which the bourgeois citizenry had been mentally colonized by ideology; the degree to which the self is a post-human and transpersonal hybrid of organism, context, information and machine; and a recognition that the mechanics of the self are to some degree cybernetic in Norbert Wiener’s sense – that is, subject to characterization in terms of control system dynamics that can equally be applied to information systems, circuits, and complex machinery.

Obviously we are still within the horizon that the Dadaists identified and began to work through with their art – these ideas are more relevant than ever.

As it so happens, I learned recently that I moved to Berlin almost one hundred years to the day after the founding of German Dadaism with the delivery of Huelsenbeck’s Dada-Speech on January 22, 1918. I thought I’d commemorate the centennial and honor the Berlin Dada by translating his speech.

Dada-Speech, by Richard Huelsenbeck

Ladies and gentlemen!

This evening is intended to provoke interest in Dadaism, a new, international “culture direction” founded two years ago in Zürich. The instigators of this beautiful cause include Hugo Ball, Emmi Hennings, the painter Slodki, the Rumanians Marcel Janco and Tristan Tzara – and I myself, last but not least, have the present honor to propagandize at this time for my old comrades and our old-new view.

Hugo Ball, a great artist and greater man, an entirely unsnobbish and unliterary man, founded the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916 in Zürich, from which Dadaism developed with our help.

Dadaism was unavoidably an international product. Something common must be found between the Russian, Rumanian, Swiss, and German. There was a witch’s sabbath the likes of which you cannot imagine, a hullabaloo from morning till evening, a frenzy of timpani and negro drums, an ecstacy with steps and Cubist dances. The Rumanians came from France, loved Apollinaire, Max Jacob, knew much of Bazun, poetry and drama and the Cubists. Marinetti, Palazeschi, Savignio wrote from Italy. We Germans stood there quite harmlessly.

Ball was in fact the only one who absorbed and processed the problems of the Futurist and Cubist directions. Perhaps some may be found among you who have heard of the Expressionist Evening talk that I organized with him. That was in fact the expressionistic poem, such as Germany had never heard. Ball brought his “Barking Dog” to Switzerland, a phantasm of a strength that little people like Korrodie and Rubiner still suffer under.

The Cabaret Voltaire was our experimental stage, where we probed to try to understand our commonalities. Together we made an extraordinarily beautiful negro song with rattles, wood klappers, and many primitive instruments. I served as the precentor, an almost mythical figure. Trabaja, Trabaja la mojere – with lots of lard.

All the artisans of Zürich began a united campaign against us. That was the most beautiful thing – now we knew who we were dealing with. We were against the pacifists, because the war had given us the opportunity to exist in our full glory. And back then the pacifists were even more decent than they are today, now that every stupid youth with his books wants to exploit the economic boom against the times. We were for the war, and Dadaism is still for the war today. Things must collide – for too long they have not been horrible enough.

In the Cabaret Voltaire we first tried our Cubist dances with Janco’s masks, self-made costumes from colorful cardboard and baubles. Tristan Tzara, who publishes the Dadaistic journals in Zürich today, invented the schema of the poème simultan for the stage – a poem that is recited by several people in different languages, rhythms, and tones at the same time. I invented the concert des voyelles and the poème bruitiste, a mixture of poetry and brutalist music, as made famous by the Futurists with the rèveil de la capitale. The inventions reigned, Tzara invented the poème statique, a kind of optical poem which you see like a forest, I myself initiated the poème mouvementiste, lecture with primitive movements, which has not yet been done in this way.

My lords, so stands Dadaism, a focus of international energies. We had had our fill of Cubism, which began to bore us with its single-minded abstraction. You arrive at the actual by yourself, once you move and are a living person. Futurism as it existed was a strictly Italian affair – a fight against the fearsome antiquity with its slick business acumen that beats every talent into the ground there. Futurism, which here in Germany, where we have the honor of being last in all things, has until recently been despised as hocus pocus by the crassly ignorant and empty-headed, because its verses were bad or incomprehensible. This Futurism, my lords, was a fight against the statue of Apollo, against the Cantilène and the bel canto – but what does it have to do with us Dadaists?

Neither with Futurism nor with Cubism. We were something new, we were the Dadas, Ball Dadas, Huelsenbeck Dada, Tzara Daha. Dada is a word that exists in all languages – it expresses nothing more than the internationality of the movement. It has nothing to do with the childish stammer with which people sought to track it.

What then is the Dadaism that I wish to espouse here tonight? It is to be the faction of great international artistic movements. It is the transition to the new joy in real things. There are guys who have been assailed by life, there are types, men with destinies and the capacity to experience. Men with sharpened intellect, who understand that they are at a turning point in time. It is only one step to politics. Tomorrow, minister or martyr in Schlüsselburg.

Dadaism is something that has in itself overcome the elements of Futurism or Cubist theorems. It must be something new, for it stands at the point of evolution, and time changes with men who have the capacity to be changed. “The Fantastic Prayers,” from which I will recite a selection, have appeared under the Dada publishing imprint and, I hope, carry the color of this movement.

Written by Mesocosm

February 20, 2018 at 8:06 am

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Goodbye San Francisco, Hello Berlin

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A great heat wave descended; it was a beautiful day, the sun turned red at three. I started up the mountain and got to the top at four. All those lovely California cottonwoods and eucalypti brooded on all sides. Near the peak there were no more trees, just rocks and grass. Cattle were grazing on the top of the coast. There was the Pacific, a few more foothills away, blue and vast and with a great wall of white advancing from the legendary potato patch where Frisco fogs are born. Another hour and it would come streaming through the Golden Gate to shroud the romantic city in white, and a young man would hold his girl by the hand and climb slowly up a long white sidewalk with a bottle of Tokay in his pocket. That was Frisco; and beautiful women standing in white doorways, waiting for their men; and Coit Tower, and the Embarcadero, and Market Street, and the eleven teeming hills. – Jack Kerouac


Ah San Francisco, Queen of California, long have you inspired the romantic with your fogs and shadows and your golden light. Next month I’ll be leaving you after calling the Bay Area home for eighteen years.

In that time I’ve watched my adopted home fade like a richly-colored photograph left in the sun, gradually desaturating to a monochromatic sepia. One by one your artists fled and your bookstores and studios closed, while pour-over coffee shops and startup incubators crowd out … well, everything else. So many of the renegade physics PhDs and T.A.Z. anarchists, the immigrant avant-garde dancers and sclerotic acolytes of cacophony, the noise musicians and the street punks left, while the techno-utopian left-libertarian programmers have crowded in.

I moved to San Francisco in the April of 2000, a refugee from a year-long foray at the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies program in Charlottesville, where Jeffrey Hopkins was in the process of winding down his career. It didn’t take me long to learn that I didn’t see eye-to-eye with the new head of the department. Nor did I love life in Virginia – despite its natural beauty, it was hard to feel at home in a state that celebrated Lee-Jackson-King Day.

So I jumped at the chance to take a room in the last affordable house in Potrero Hill. I packed my books and sent them cheaprate post and moved with a few bags of clothes by train on a five-day journey that traversed the gigantic continent; a fitting externalization of the equally-momentous internal journey I was taking into a new world. A few days after I arrived I spotted a bumper sticker near the Panhandle that read “Honk if You Love Borges”. A few days after that I made a joke about Werner Heisenberg at a party and everybody laughed. I knew I was home.

Two years later I was practicing daily, and then living in, the San Francisco Zen Center, studying in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind fame. A few years after that I was working as a staff writer/researcher for the drug information website Erowid. Then came life working for Facebook, then I joined Oculus.

I saw the midnight sky above Big Sur when to be young was very heaven. I once (momentarily) stymied Jeffrey Hopkins with a question about Madhyamaka at a conference in Boulder Creek (“If emptiness exists only conventionally, what conventional consciousness certifies its existence?”). I was in a book group with Mark Zuckerberg and recommended he read William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience (he did). I debated the ethics of gray-market psychedelics with Sasha Shulgin in Costa Rica. I ran into Blixa Bargeld on the street not once but twice.

In February, Mrs. O’Cosm and I will pull up the roots of my eighteen years and crash land in Prenzlauer Berg, and then begin the reportedly arduous process of finding a permanent apartment. I foresee a year of logistics and bureaucracy, of intensive language study and disorientation, and professional sabbatical. I look forward to sharing some of the highlights with you.

Written by Mesocosm

January 11, 2018 at 11:15 am

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Pixar’s “Coco” Sounds Surprisingly Awesome

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According to an article in Entertainment Weekly, Pixar’s next film “Coco” tells the story of a musician whose mysterious link to his ancestor leads him to the Land of the Dead on Dia de los Muertos. There, he meets a “trickster skeletal spirit” named Hector. All-Latino cast.

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December 6, 2016 at 11:54 am

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Brief Update

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Hey folks,

Just wanted to give a heads up that I’ll be slowing down on Mesocosm for a while. I’m going to shift focus to Mesoscope, my political blog. It is not something I particularly want to make a central focus of my attention, but under the circumstances I feel that I have no choice.

The purpose of Mesoscope is to provide tools for opposing the extremely destructive policies that have been embraced by the Trump administration, and supporting efforts to construct a positive alternative vision for society.

My primary political commitments are: 1) rational, evidence-based discourse is the legitimate basis for political consensus, 2) political power must be rooted in democratic norms and procedures, and 3) human society must be organized in terms of a shared understanding of universal basic rights.


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December 4, 2016 at 9:53 am

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