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Tutor profile: Joshua W.

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Joshua W.
Recent College Graduate Specializing in English and Philosophy
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Questions

Subject: Philosophy

TutorMe
Question:

How dos Ibn Sina equivocate between a priori and a posteriori theories of knowledge? Is the human born with some innate knowledge, or must it be learned through experience?

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Joshua W.
Answer:

In his philosophic writings, medieval Arabic philosopher Ibn Sina is concerned with the related questions of intelligibility and individuation: respectively, how a human being is able to tell that she exists (self-knowledge) and how a human being is different from other human beings (if at all). In his "Psychology," Ibn Sina proposes a complex theory of individuation which ascribes “individual intention,” “existence,” and “designated matter” as the qualities which differentiate one human from another (198). Notably, these semi-vague distinctions fundamentally differ from an amalgamation theory which states that accidental qualities differentiate human beings. On this neoplatonic theory, there is an essential aspect of human-ness which is present in all humans, so what makes one human different from another are arbitrary (accidental) variations on those aspects: hair color, height, number of fingers on each hand are such qualities which differentiate between humans (but not between species). Yet, in later discussions of this individuation principle in terms of the Flying Man’s soul and God’s knowledge of particulars in a universal way, Ibn Sina appears to offer a contradictory argument. While in "Psychology," individuation is a temporal distinction, upheld in the material world, Ibn Sina also contends via the Flying Man example that humans a priori have an innate self-awareness of their soul. This Flying Man serves as a focal point of contradiction with Ibn Sina’s Psychology with regards to the connection between human consciousness and self-knowledge. If humans are indeed innately individuated by their designated matter (Psychology), then self-knowledge can neither be an acquired disposition nor can it depend on bodily sensation (Flying Man). These tensions establish the overarching question of whether self-self-knowledge is acquired, per "Psychology," or immediate, per the Flying Man. Ibn Sina appears to be trapped in between a commitment to Aristotelian metaphysics which uses matter to individuate member of a species who share the same essence and theological beliefs which contend that the soul is immaterial and distinct from the body. On close analysis, it appears that the same ways in which God is aware of celestial occurrences such as a lunar eclipse, the Flying Man is aware of his own soul universally. Though distinct, these two universal ways of arriving at knowledge of individuation provide a compelling means of reformulating the flawed theory of individual intention. It seems as if Ibn Sina more strongly advocates for a theory of universal self-knowledge via the soul which can serve as a more discerning individuation principle. Ibn Sina builds the foundations for this universal individuation of the human soul into his philosophy, an indication which is both intelligible and locally universal –– a human will only have such knowledge about his own soul, not that of others. Ibn Sina failed to reconcile his earlier view with his later ontology of individuation, a project which was attempted in this paper.

Subject: English

TutorMe
Question:

How does J.M. Coetzee's "Boyhood" use narratological techniques to distance the novel's protagonist from its eponymous author?

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Joshua W.
Answer:

J.M. Coetzee’s autobiographical fiction, Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life, lies on the semipermeable boundaries of fiction/history, subjectivity/objectivity, and free, indirect discourse/psycho-narration. In the same manner that Coetzee’s father plays rugby, but for the second string Worcester team, the novel rests in a state of betweenness––neither wholly historical nor fictional, particular nor universal, confessional nor fictionalized (50). Written late in Coetzee’s career, Boyhood is ostensibly a work of biographical fiction, narrating the author’s childhood from an alienated third-person, present tense perspective––Coetzee treats himself as a biographic rather than autobiographic subject. The temporal and narrative distance between the historical Coetzee, the implied author Coetzee, the protagonist Coetzee, and Boyhood’s narrator forms a nominally confessional narrative about Coetzee’s journey from the South African veld to international novelist. These confusing narrative layers, coupled with Coetzee’s central use of free, indirect discourse present the young Coetzee’s emotional landscape as the cardinal function propelling the logic of the novel. Conveying harsh realities of living under apartheid South Africa through the focalized perspective of his childhood self, Coetzee describes the experience of inhabiting his native land without indictment. His personal alienation from the text calls into question its truth value, and places the burden on the reader to separate the emotionally stunted reality of the young Coetzee from the holistic viewpoint of the implied author in the performative act of reading. Coetzee’s use of the biographical format suggests a level of overhearing; the reader enters the personal life of Coetzee in a way which he would be totally inaccessible in the real world. When asking his friends to recall their earliest memory, the younger Coetzee not only casts doubt as to the veracity of memory–– “is it true?”–– but also lies in the public sphere, electing to keep his actual first memory a secret for himself and for the reader (30-31). Such close-guardedness suggests that it is only through the written form of the novel that Coetzee is able to have an honest conversation with himself, a working out of his juvenile psychology on paper; he is his only interlocutor throughout Boyhood. This inner accuracy is made possible through the novel’s extensive use of free, indirect discourse which melds the disembodied narrator with the various Coetzees. Coetzee opens Chapter 11 with a brief description of the protagonist’s family relations: “On the occasions when strangers come to the house, he and his brother scuttle away like wild animals, then sneak back to lurk behind doors and eavesdrop” (78). The omniscient narrator enters the minds of Coetzee, his brother, and mother, keeping track of all of their movements and mental states at the same time. The first line of this paragraph summaries the behavior of the Coetzees in the context of other local families and the depiction of the children as “scuttling like wild animals” likely comes from Vera Coetzee, though the sentence is in free, indirect discourse. The immediate interplay between the focalized perspective of Coetzee, interspersed with the views of those around him creates a perspectival sense of immediacy. In these moments, the young Coetzee lies both within and without the perspective of his parents, able to recycle their received opinions, while simultaneously critiquing them.

Subject: Art History

TutorMe
Question:

How does Barkley Hendricks' depiction of the human form allow works such as "Lawdy Mama" (1969) and "Steve" (1976) to speak both to his own turbulent time and to future viewers?

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Joshua W.
Answer:

Hendricks' works such as "Lawdy Mama" (1969) and "Steve" (1976) divorce themselves from their local context by placing an everyday subject in front of a placeless, monochrome background. In "Steve," Hendricks idealizes the central figure, suggesting a sharp diremption from its immediate contextual meaning. There is no way to "know" who Steve was or his importance to Hendricks. Instead, the artists privileges the immediacy of the picture plane, allowing the work to speak autonomously. Taking a cue from L.A. Rebellion filmmakers, Hendricks elevates the status of the working class Black American by representing them in the guise, atmosphere, and contemplative attitudes of kings (as canonically depicted in art history). Hendricks is making an implicitly political social critique of the practice of art making itself. In "Lawdy Mama, " the central figure encloses herself through her muted body language, presenting herself as an autonomous unit, looked at and looking at the viewer. Her arms crossed both in front of and behind her (in two positions) implies an interiority within the picture plane. Further, the brilliant yellow hue of the background, rhymed with the figure’s yellow and orange coloration, associates the figure with an ‘utopian’ nowhere. Such as background cannot be realistic, but must be imagined. The elevation of the black body out of time sharply contrasts with its contemporaneous media depictions and subjugation. Rather than merely being reactive or reactionary, the painting’s defense and elevation of the black body are present in its material surface, rather than being located in external, contingent events. Its power derives from self-reflexivity and use of space, lack of perspective, flatness, and mirroring of the central figure in various poses. Its conceptual mobility is thus conveyed by the figure’s physically and mentally turning inwards (away from the world of its own context). The frame literally cuts off the figure’s body – she is not continuous with but truncated by the edge of the world/painting.

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