- Jun 12, 2015
(Report by Professor Elie During)
Session 1: I gave a general introduction to some of the big issues underlying the philosophical reception of relativity theory, following a distinction between: a) epistemological issues such as the function of a priori cognitive structures in our knowledge of the universe, b) metaphysical issues related to fundamental concepts such as space and time, coexistence and connection, identity and becoming, which constitute the core of any philosophy of nature.
On the epistemological front, I emphasised the difference between the neo-kantian approach advocated by Cassirer and the neo-positivist doctrine of Reichenbach. The concept of conventional "coordinative definition" was examined as an alternative to the traditional conception of the a priori. From that perspective, the relativity of simultaneity appeared to be a product of the ultimately arbitrary nature of the definitions involved by our measuring methods. The conventionalist strategy is in agreement with certain "deflationist" interpretations of the philosophical impact of Einstein's theory, downplaying the startling claims regarding space and time as a mere artefact of measuring procedures that does not affect space and time "in themselves" (Alain's stark criticism of "Einsteinian" philosophers runs along the same lines). This is not Reichenbach's view, however. At the heart of his account of the relativity of simultaneity lays a realist claim about the objective (frame-independent) structure of causal connections within the universe.
This offered a natural transition to the topics examined in Session 2, which focused on the ways certain philosophers redefined the metaphysical and cosmological background of their philosophy of nature to accommodate Einstein's theories. Both Bergson and Whitehead thought that Einstein's main contribution to philosophy was not to criticise general assumptions regarding space and time (such as the absolute nature of simultaneity), but to open the ways for new adventures in thought. Some time was spent on familiarising ourselves with Whitehead's intriguing views on the meaning of "time" in a context where "events" constitute the basic spatio-temporal ingredients of nature.
In order to see this, a "toy-model" of the special theory of relativity was presented in Session 3, emphasising two main aspects exemplified, respectively, by the principle of relativity and by the principle of light according to which the speed of light is a limiting factor in the propagation of any causal influence across space (this is illustrated by the existence of an absolute speed limit, invariant under all transformations from one perspective to another). The first principle is a principle of equivalence: it states the equivalence of a class of interchangeable perspectives on the world. Negatively, it states that there is no privileged point of view on the universe (and thus, no absolute space, no absolute motion). The second principle is a principle of reality in Freud's sense: it states that in order for real connection to obtain, time is needed for a causal influence to propagate from one point to another. Connection takes time. Negatively: there is no instantaneous action at a distance (and thus, no absolute "present"). The consequences of conjoining these two principles were evaluated from a philosophical point of view, with special emphasis on the non-intuitive character of physical interactions through space and time. Finally, drawing on Bachelard's ideas, we considered some ontological consequences of relativity theory―more particularly the way physical objects come to be determined by the interplay of perspectives, rather than as an underlying, pre-given substance waiting to be uncovered. There is, in his own terms, a constant "interference"―a relation of co-determination―between reality and reference, objectivity and perspective. Here again, epistemological issues appear essentially linked with metaphysical ones.
- Jun 5, 2015
Although slightly after time, this gives an idea of the classes held over three sessions from 7-8 May by Professor Clélia Zernik. Their title was "The phenomenology of cinema: Merleau-Ponty on Japanese films".
The first class looked chiefly at the paper, "Cinema and the new psychology" included in Merleau-Ponty's Sense and non-sense of 1948. We should note here that he talks about "new psychology" (Gestalt psychology), rather than phenomenology. In general, in Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology, when we understand something, we think of the subject and object as not being independent, but as being influenced by each other, and working ambivalently. Similarly, when we perceive something, even if it is concentrated in one of the senses - for example it only seems to be sensed through the ears - Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology insists that, in fact, the other senses are at work and it is sensed from various directions. However, in the case of cinema, the situation is a little different. Perception is obscured by frames, and there is less intertwining "chiasm" between the subject and object, and between the several senses, than every-day perception. Cinema, then, necessitates explanation through a "new psychology" that differs from the simple phenomenology used to describe every-day perception.
The second session turned to Yasujiro Ozu's "Tokyo monogatari" (Tokyo story). Yasujiro Ozu created magnificent works through camerawork from a low position that sees through the eyes of the subject - the methodology known as "Ozuism" - with perfectly arranged composition, which exerted great influence upon the world of film. We were introduced to some scenes in which symmetry and perspective are used; we saw how composition upon these principles actually affected our perception. As an example of this, we were shown a picture that had two ways of looking at it (a visual illusion), and we all guessed at what we thought the picture presented. Such a psychological method is effective in interpreting Ozu films.
The third class focussed on those who succeeded Yasujiro Ozu. In particular, the films of Akira Kurosawa were raised in relation to how they differed from "Ozuism". In the intital scene of "Rashomon" that witnesses a murder, the camera remains directed on the hands of the victim, while the heart-in-mouth expression of the witness appears on screen. We also referred to others among his films, including "Seven samurai", "Stray dog" and "Dreams". In the case of Ozu's works, a splendid form is maintained throughout that is like a single photograph, and the audience is left to itself to concentrate on observing the story, whereas Kurosawa's works set forth initially depictions with much impact that draw the audience into the heart of the story. The boundaries between subject and object are broken down. Here, then, methods of phenomenology prove more appropriate. Yet, as Professor Zernik remarked during the class, "Toshiro Mifune always stars in Akira Kurosawa films". Similarly, Yasujiro Ozu had Setsuko Hara; this use of a fixed cast, I felt, was one way that Kurosawa followed "Ozuism".
I am ashamed to say that this class was the first occasion I had ever seen "Tokyo story". In the last scene, the family has left, and the protagonist spends a quiet time in the room with his memories; in contrast the brightness of the day streams in. I was caught unprepared by this, and had to try hard to hold back the tears whilst watching the film during the class. I shall take this as an opportunity to discover more of these works.