PHILOSOPHICAL CASES

By Mikhail Epstein

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The Montréal Review, February 2024

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Preface

...But the strangest case... Didn't I tell
you?

А. S. Pushkin.

"Mozart and Salieri."

Philosophy usually does without cases, dealing only with principles, ideas, laws, and universals. However, as modern science is inclined to believe, it is chance that lies at the foundation of the world. According to Niels Bohr, and contrary to Albert Einstein, God does play dice – in particular, the “dice” of quanta. The most precise of the sciences that deal with the fundamentals of the universe, quantum physics, is built on chance and probability. Why shouldn’t philosophy, too, take up chance? Let's give chance a chance!

"Philosophical cases" are thought experiments that break the usual connection between phenomena, that split reality into meaningful quanta and give rise to meditation and imagination. Each "case" is a seed of new ideas about the world. In traditional homiletic-allegorical genres like the parable or fable, things or animals usually follow the roles allotted them. The seed grows; the wine is poured into the bellows; the sheep grazes; the dragonfly dances; the ant stores up for winter; the wolf eats the lamb... But in these "Cases," things are disobedient, crossing the boundaries assigned to them a golden quill.

Trade flees its master, draws scribbles, a grain of sand cries out in the desert, a paperclip gives orders. It’s like parables turned upside down. Such is the nature of a “case” as a sudden occurrence: it breaks rules and violates expectations. While parables  or  fables teach us to behave in accordance with the nature of things, and therefore respond to the demands of religion and morality, philosophy questions the existing order; its essence is surprise, the unexpected, the subversion of foundations and the questioning of meanings. This is why, in my view, a chance "case" is a philosophical genre.

.

There are chance occurrences that are destructive to the order of things, such as in Daniil Kharms, whose "Chances” or “Cases” (“Sluchai,” 1930s) constitute particles of absurdity, quanta of nonsense. For me, to the contrary, what is important is the growth of small particles into the greatest meanings, which include everything from humankind to God, from the atom to the Universe. The world is good and justified in that it allows any mistakes, absurdities, or misconceptions to turn into augmentations of meaning.  If Kharms's accident-cases are antisense, then in my understanding they constitute metasense, which includes absurdity.

In Kharms, the first phrase is usually still meaningful, and then things rapidly disintegrate. For example: "Pushkin had four sons..." – that's wrong, but at least it makes sense. And then it turns out that all these sons were idiots and fell out of their chairs, just as did Pushkin himself. And it ends with a complete absurdity: "...at one end, Pushkin is always falling from his chair, and at the other end, so does his son. It's an outrage, enough to drive out all the saints!"

I would continue: "And when all the saints were driven out, it turned out that Pushkin himself was the main saint. And although he fell from all the chairs, he rose higher than the Alexander Pillar. What a son of a bitch!"

This is how Kharms's antisense grows into a super-sense. What seems absurd and idiotic turns out to be the acrobatics of chance, a multivalent game of reason. Each case is an overthrow of the usual picture of the world.

These short, several-line allegories are accompanied by illustrations created using AI. (The collection “Philosophical Cases” was originally published in Russian in the journal Znamia, 8, 2022, P. 194-203. ) The pictures produced in response to my queries and prompts sometimes deviate from the text, introducing additional details, or omitting certain moments from the story. The illustrations are not a literal translation from verbal to pictorial language, but the creation of self-valuable images, of new associations that suggest the further development of the situation.

Like "philosophical cases" (sluchai) themselves, pictures also happen (sluchaiutsia): their birth in AI is as whimsical and unpredictable as the flash of a thought or image in the human brain. Contrary to the stereotypical opinion that such creativity is "mechanistic," each picture is unique. The AI itself cannot repeat it: in response to the exact same request, at the exact same moment, it produces a completely different image. To paraphrase Heraclitus, you cannot enter the same AI twice.

If you combine classical clarity, surreal imagination, and technical sophistication, adding humor and irony, you get an art form that might be called "neuro-art."

An AI creates its own self-portrait

The book is structured as a series of dual spreads, each comprising paired elements: texts on the left and images on the right. This layout mirrors the brain's hemispheric functions—the left hemisphere, known for its role in logical thinking and language comprehension, is represented by the text; while the right hemisphere, associated with visual and artistic perception, is symbolized by the images. As readers navigate these pages, they encounter a dialogue between the two hemispheres, culminating in a cohesive work of verbal and pictorial art. This unique presentation serves as a visual model of the brain, eloquently illustrating its dual nature through the very structure of the book.

MAN AND DOG

A man went for a walk in the neighborhood and encountered other walkers, except that the latter all had dogs with them. He felt awkward: they were taking care of business, while he, an idler, was just walking himself. To ease his discomfort, he began to quietly bark to himself, and to pretend to pull himself on a leash – one long enough to enable him to sniff everything around him. This made his life easier, as it helped him distinguish two personas within himself: one holding the leash and the other wearing the collar. All that remained was to conduct himself appropriately. And so, whenever he was asked how one should conduct oneself, his response was always: “With a long leash.”

BERDYAEV'S CAT AND PAVLOV'S DOG

The philosopher Berdyaev loved his cat Muri and believed in the immortality of its soul. One day, Muri’s soul encountered the soul of a dog who had belonged to the physiologist Pavlov – one of the victims of a merciless scientific massacre. The cat’s soul asked the nameless dog's soul:

"How will your tormentor justify himself before God?"

"He was a scientist," replied the dog’s soul, "and I suffered for the sake of science, though no one loved me."

So it goes: one soul is saved by love, another by suffering.

A LITTLE FISH

A philosopher paid his friends a visit, and while they were busy preparing dinner, he observed a solitary fish in a fishbowl. It swam gracefully, its fins gently moving and bubbles rising around it, its entire world seemingly confined to the water. Feeling a pang of sympathy, the philosopher asked, 'How is the world treating you, goldfish?' In response, the fish flicked its tail, swam towards the fishbowl wall, and seemed to inquire, 'And how is the world treating you?' The philosopher pondered his own life - his city, country, institution, administration, routine - and found himself envying the fish, which was surrounded only by water. But on the other hand, he too now felt as though he were in a fishbowl.

TRADE WITHOUT A MASTER

Trade was fearful of its master, who always worked with excessive force. When he hammered nails, the nail-heads would sink deep into the boards, sometimes going through entirely. When he dug a ditch for pipe-laying, it was so deep that groundwater filled it. And when he ruled a state, his governance was so harsh that all dissenters found themselves locked away. One day, overcome with fear, trade could no longer endure, and fled far, far away. There, it roamed from country to country, trading in its own self, quietly and unobtrusively. Meanwhile, the master, having abandoned his hammer and shovel, succumbed to a deep, unending sleep.

Sometimes, parting with one’s master is a good tradeoff.

THE GOLDEN QUILL

An old poet presented a golden quill to a young one, who accepted the gift with reverence and asked, "What have you written with this?" "Nothing," the great poet replied. "I've only ever worked on a typewriter and computer." Puzzled, the young poet inquired, "Then what use did you have for a quill?" The elder explained, "I used it to doodle all sorts of nonsense and to make ink blots. This kept me from writing thousands of bad poems." "A marvelous gift indeed!" exclaimed the young poet and placed the quill on his desk. From that day on, he never wrote another poem.

THE MISSING WORD

A poet had forgotten a word. He tried to remember it, but this was complicated by the fact that he had also forgotten its meaning. And what he needed it for. He spent the rest of his life in search of that lost word, writing numerous poems in the hope that it would suddenly emerge among the lines. Eventually, he came to a realization: even if the word did appear, he would no longer recognize it. When the poet passed away, everyone acknowledged that, in the end, he had succeeded in expressing his unique word and in creating his own universe.

DOCTOR AND PATIENT

There was once a stubborn, capricious patient who consistently refused to follow his doctor's prescribed treatment. This patient was widely criticized for his obstinacy. When he died, the doctor reflected: "How noble of him! He would have died regardless of whether he followed my advice, but he chose to shoulder the blame himself."

THE THEOLOGIAN AND THE ATHEISTS

A theologian undertook to defend God from the criticisms of atheists. In response, the atheists decided to strangle the theologian to death, to see what God might do to them for this. They vigilantly watched the heavens. One day passed, then another, and on the third day, one atheist approached another and remarked: "We were wrong. God is indeed merciful."

THE EGG AND THE CHICKEN

An egg began to argue with a chicken, insisting it had come first. The chicken snarled: "It’s not for eggs to lecture a chicken." The egg made a scientific case for its viewpoint: the first chicken had hatched from an egg laid by a female dinosaur.

"Oh, so that’s how it is," said the chicken. “In that case, I won't lay a single egg ever again."

"Oh, so that’s how it is," replied the egg. "From now on, not a single chick will hatch from me ever again."

And they stuck to this — a stone egg and a virgin chicken — and there was nothing left for them to argue about, since each turned out to be right.

THE PAPER CLIP

A paperclip was dying of boredom, for it no longer had anything to do. People hardly used papers anymore, and still less did they have the need to clip them together. A box of paperclips lay neglected beside the computer – their gravedigger – but it had been ages since anyone touched them. Suddenly, into the room came something big — the dresser even made way for it, and the desk sagged. This something was just like the paperclip, only hundreds of times bigger: not a clip, but an enormous CLAMP.

"What purpose do you serve?" the paperclip squeaked. "There are hardly any papers left; we’re not needed."

"What are papers to me?!" boomed the CLAMP. "I shall bind the People, for I am the Bond. And my grip is an iron one." And it began to dictate its edicts to the computer.

A GRAIN OF SAND AND THE DESERT

A grain of sand cried out: "I am so small that I get lost in a heap of my own kind. Just looking at the desert is sickening — there are countless others just like me."

“No matter,” responded the desert. "Now you are unique – a voice crying out in the wilderness."

A FALLEN LEMON

A lemon had been ripening on the branch for a long time, growing heavier and juicier. Eventually, it fell to the ground.

Lying there, it thought to itself: "I'm feeling a little sour today."

A BLADE OF GRASS AND GOLD

A geologist said to a blade of grass: "I need to uproot you, as there's gold beneath you."

"We are alive," responded the blade of grass. "Let us love and cherish each other. Gold doesn’t care where it lies – it’s dead."

Thus, they established the Union of the Living, soon joined by a ladybug. But then, the gold itself spoke up: "I am a living metal, born from microorganisms, from bacteria."

"Nowadays everyone wants to be a living creature," the ladybug grumbled. "Look at you, taking up the fashion for life, but how many people have perished because of you!"

And so the following was added to the Union's bylaws: "Even the noblest corpse is not a life form."

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THE PHILOSOPHICAL CASES EBOOK CAN BE DOWNLOADED HERE FOR FREE

Published in its Russian original on December 7, 2023, this book is one of the first to be fully illustrated by AI.

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Mikhail N. Epstein is a Russian–American cultural and literary scholar. He is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Cultural Theory and Russian Literature at Emory University (USA). From 2012 to 2015, he served as Professor and Founding Director of the Centre for Humanities Innovation at Durham University (UK). Epstein has authored 43 books and more than 800 articles and essays. His work has been translated into 26 languages. His latest books include: The Transformative Humanities: A Manifesto (Bloomsbury Academic, 2012); The Irony of the Ideal: Paradoxes of Russian Literature (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2017); Russian Postmodernism: New Perspectives on Post-Soviet Culture (with A. Genis and S. Vladiv-Glover; Berghahn Books, 2016). A Philosophy of the Possible: Modalities in Thought and Culture (Brill, 2019); The Phoenix of Philosophy: Russian Thought of the Late Soviet Period (1953-1991) (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019); Ideas Against Ideocracy: Non-Marxist Thought of the Late Soviet Period (1953–1991) (Bloomsbury Academic, 2022).

 

 

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