A post that moves me to find Larkin's Letters to Monica. Kurp quotes Larkin:
I seem to walk on a transparent surface and see beneath me all the bones and wrecks and tentacles that will eventually claim me: in other words, old age, incapacity, loneliness, death of others & myself . . . .
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Book II, sec. 92, tr. Kaufmann:
Good prose is written only face to face with poetry. For it is an uninterrupted, well-mannered war with poetry: all of its attractions depend on the way in which poetry is continually avoided and contradicted.
More than one. Here is one. And as old Chisholm used to say, you are not philosophizing unless you have a puzzle. So try on this aporetic triad for size:
1. Purely fictional objects do not exist.
2. There are true sentences about purely fictional objects, e.g., 'Sherlock Holmes is a detective' and 'Sherlock Holmes is purely fictional.'
3. If a sentence of the form Fa is true, then there exists an x such that 'a' refers to x.
The triad is logically inconsistent: any two limbs entail the negation of the remaining one. So the limbs cannot all be true despite the considerable plausibility of each. So one of the propositions must be rejected. But the first is nonnegotiable since it is true by definition. The leaves two options: reject (2) or reject (3).
Suppose we reject (2). One way to do this is by supplying a paraphrase in which the apparent reference to the nonexistent is replaced by real reference to the existent. For example, the apparent reference to Sherlock, who does not exist, is replaced by real reference to a story in which he figures, a story that, of course, exists. The elliptical approach is one way of implementing this paraphrastic strategy. Accordingly,
4. Sherlock Holmes is a detective
5. Sherlock Holmes is fictional
are elliptical for, respectively,
6. In the Conan Doyle stories, Sherlock Holmes is a detective
7. In the Conan Doyle stories, Sherlock Holmes is fictional.
But note that while (5) is plainly true, (7) is plainly false. So (7) cannot be taken as elliptical for (5) This is a serious problem for the 'story operator' approach. Or consider the true
8. Sherlock Holmes does not exist.
(8) is surely not short for the false
9. In the Conan Doyle stories, Sherlock Holmes does not exist.
The point can be made with other 'extranuclear' predicates such as 'merely possible' and 'mythological.' If I say that Pegasus is mythological, I don't mean that, according to legend, Pegasus is mythological. But the story operator approach also has trouble with 'nuclear' predicates such as 'detective.' But I'll save that for a subsequent post.
I'll end with a different challenge to the story operator approach. Consider
10. Pinocchio was less of a liar than Barack Obama.
Whether you consider (1) true or false, it is certainly not elliptical for
11. In Carlo Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883), Pinocchio was less of a liar than Barack Obama.
To put it vaguely, the the trouble with the story operator appoach is that it traps fictional characters within particular stories, songs, legends, tales, etc. so that (i) it becomes difficult to understand how they can show up in different different stories, songs, etc. as they obviously do in the cases of Faust and Pinocchio, and (ii) it becomes difficult to understand how they can show up in comparisons with nonfictional individuals.
As an ornery aporetician, I want ultimately to say that an equally strong case can be made both for and against the thesis that ficta are impossibilia. But here I only make (part of) the case for thinking that ficta are impossibilia.
Every human being is either right-handed or not right-handed. (But if one is not right-handed, it doesn't follow that one is left-handed. One could be ambidexterous or ambisinistrous.) What about the fictional character Hamlet? Is he right-handed or not right-handed? I say he is neither: he is indeterminate with respect to the property of righthandedness. That makes him an incomplete object, one that violates the law of Excluded Middle (LEM), or rather one to which LEM does not apply.
Hamlet (the character, not the play) is incomplete because he has all and only the properties ascribed to him by the author of the play, and the author left Hamlet's handedness unspecified. It is worth noting that Hamlet the play is complete and this holds for each written token of the play, the type of which they are tokens, and each enactment of the play. This is because the play and its enactments are actualia.
But don't we say that Hamlet the play is fictional? We do, but what we mean is not that the play is an object of fiction, but that the people and events depicted therein are fictional. The play is not fictional but entirely real. Of course, there could be a play that is a mere object of fiction: a play within a play. The same holds for novels. My copies of Moby Dick are each of them complete and actual, hence full-fledged citizens of the real, with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereunto; but Ishmael, Queequeg, and Ahab are not. They are objects of fiction; those books are not. And presumably the type of which they are tokens, though an abstract object, is also actual and complete. A person's reading or 'enactment' of the novel is typically a long, interrupted process; but it too is complete and actual and resident in the real order.
Back to the character Hamlet: he is an incomplete object, having all and only the properties ascribed to him in the play (together with, perhaps, entailments of these properties). London Ed balks at this:
I don't follow this at all. I don't agree with the second sentence "He has all and only ….". Of course Shakespeare said that there was a person called ‘Hamlet’ who had certain properties (e.g. he said that Hamlet was a prince of Denmark. It doesn’t follow that there is someone who has or had such a property. For example, legend says that there was a horse called ‘Pegasus’ that flew. It doesn’t follow that there are or were flying horses.
This objection shows misunderstanding. I did not say or imply that there exists in actuality, outside the mind, a man named 'Hamlet.' The point is rather that when I read the play there appears before my mind a merely intentional object, one that I know is fictional, and therefore, one that I know is merely intentional. If Ed denies this, then he denies what is phenomenologically evident. And, as a matter of method, we must begin with the phenomenology of the situation.
Suppose I write a two-sentence novel:
It was a dark and rainy night. Shakey Jake, life-long insomniac, deciding he needed a nightcap, grabbed his flashlight and his raincoat and headed for the Glass Crutch bar and grill, a local watering hole a half a mile from his house.
Now I couldn't have written that, and you can't understand it, without thinking about various intentional objects that do not exist. Am I saying that there exist objects that do not exist? No, that would be a contradiction. Nor am I committed to saying that there are objects that have mind-independent being but not existence. Furthermore, I am not committed to Meinong's doctrine of Aussersein.
All I am doing is holding fast to a phenomenological datum: when I create a fictional character as I just did when I created Shakey Jake the insomniac, I bring before my mind an intentional object. (The act-object schema strikes me as having pretty good phenomenological credentials, unlike the adverbial schema.) What can we say about this merely intentional object? First, it is no part of the acts through which I think it. My acts of thinking exist in reality, but Shakey Jake does not exist in reality. (This point goes back to Twardowski.) When I think about Hamlet or Don Quixote or Shakey Jake, I am not thinking about my own mind or any state of my mind. I am not thinking about anything real. But it doesn' t follow that I am not thinking of anything.
If Ed denies that there are merely intentional objects, then he is denying what is phenomenologically evident. I take my stand on the terra firma of phenomenological givenness. So for now, and to get on with it, I simply dismiss Ed's objection. To pursue it further would involve us a in a metaphilosophical discussion of the role of phenomenological appeals in philosophical inquiry.
Ficta are Impossibilia
Let us confine ourselves to purely fictional objects and leave out of consideration real individuals who are partially fictionalized in fables, legends, apocryphal stories, so-called historical novels that blend fact and fiction, and the like. One of my theses is that purely fictional objects cannot exist and thus are broadly logically impossible. They are necessarily nonexistent, where the modality in question is broadly logical. It does not follow, however, that pure ficta have no ontological status whatsoever. They have a mode of being that could be called existential heteronomy. On this point I agree with Roman Ingarden, a philosopher who deserves more attention in the Anglosphere than he receives here.
Earlier I gave an argument from incompleteness: the incomplete cannot exist and so are impossible. But now I take a different tack.
Purely fictional objects are most plausibly viewed as made up, or constructed, by novelists, playwrights, et al. It may be that they are constructed from elements that are not themselves constructed, elements such as properties or Castaneda's ontological guises. Or perhaps fictional objects are constructed ex nihilo. Either way, they have no being at all prior to their creation or construction. There was no Captain Ahab before Melville 'cooked him up.' But if Ahab were a merely possible individual, then one could not temporally index his coming to be; he would not come to be, but be before, during, and after Melvlle's writing down his description.
The issue could be framed as follows. Are novels, plays, etc. which feature logically consistent pure ficta, something like telescopes that allow us to peer from the realm of the actual into the realm of the merely possible, both realms being realms of the real? Or are novels, etc. more like mixing bowls or ovens in which ficta are 'cooked up'? I say the latter. If you want, you can say that Melville is describing something when he writes about Ahab, but what he is describing is something he has made up: a merely intentional object that cannot exist apart from the acts of mind trained upon it. He is not describing something that has ontological status apart from his mind and the minds of his readers. He is also not descrbing some real feature or part of himself as subject. So we could say that in describing Ahab he is describing an item that is objectively but not subjectvely mind-dependent.
Here is an Argument from Origin:
1. Pure ficta are made up or constructed via the mental acts and actions of novelists, playwrights, et al.
2. Ahab is a pure fictum.
3. Ahab came into being via the mental activity of a novelist or playwright. (from 1,2)
4. No human being comes into being via the mental activity of novelists, et al., but via the uniting of human sperm and human egg.
5. Ahab is not a human being. (from 3, 4)
6. A merely possible human being is a human being, indeed a flesh-and-blood human being, though not an actual flesh-and-blood human being.
7. Ahab is not a merely possible human being, but a fictional human being where 'fictional' unlike 'merely possible' functions as an alienans adjective.
This argument does not settle the matter, however, since it is not compelling. A Meinongian or quasi-Meinongian could, with no breach of logical propriety, run the argument in reverse, denying (7) and denying (1). One man's modus ponens, etc.
The following from Chapter 11 of Big Sur, emphasis added. After three weeks alone in Big Sur in Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Bixby canyon cabin, Kerouac, freaked out by the solitude and his metaphysical and religious brooding amidst the starkness of nature, hitch hikes for the last time in his life north on Highway 1 toward Monterey and San Francisco where he receives another 'sign':
The next sign is in Frisco itself where after a night of perfect sleep in an old skid row hotel room I go to see Monsanto [Ferlinghetti] at his City Lights bookstore and he's smiling and glad to see me, says "We were coming out to see you next weekend you should have waited, " but there's something else in his expression -- When we're alone he says "Your mother wrote and said your cat is dead. "
Ordinarily the death of a cat means little to most men, a lot to fewer men, but to me, and that cat, it was exactly and no lie and sincerely like the death of my little brother -- I loved Tyke with all my heart, he was my baby who as a kitten just slept in the palm of my hand with his little head hanging down, or just purring, for hours, just as long as I held him that way, walking or sitting -- He was like a floppy fur wrap around my wrist, I just twist him around my wrist or drape him and he just purred and purred and even when he got big I still held him that way, I could even hold this big cat in both hands with my arms outstretched right over my head and he'd just purr, he had complete confidence in me -- And when I'd left New York to come to my retreat in the woods I'd carefully kissed him and instructed him to wait for me, 'Attends pour mue kitigingoo" -- But my mother said in the letter he had died the NIGHT AFTER I LEFT! -- But maybe you'll understand me by seeing for yourself by reading the letter:
"Sunday 20 July 1960, Dear Son, I'm afraid you wont like my letter because I only have sad news for you right now. I really dont know how to tell you this but Brace up Honey. I'm going through hell myself. Little Tyke is gone. Saturday all day he was fine and seemed to pick up strength, but late at night I was watching TV a late movie. Just about 1: 30 A. M. when he started belching and throwing up. I went to him and tried to fix him up but to no availe. He was shivering like he was cold so I rapped him up in a Blanket then he started to throw up all over me. And that was the last of him. Needless to say how I feel and what I went through. I stayed up till "day Break" and did all I could to revive him but it was useless. I realized at 4 A. M. he was gone so at six I wrapped him up good in a clean blanket -- and at 7 A. M. went out to dig his grave. I never did anything in my whole life so heart breaking as to bury my beloved little Tyke who was as human as you and I. I buried him under the Honeysuckle vines, the corner, of the fence. I just cant sleep or eat. I keep looking and hoping to see him come through the cellar door calling Ma Wow. I'm just plain sick and the weirdest thing happened when I buried Tyke, all the black Birds I fed all Winter seemed to have known what was going on. Honest Son this is no lies. There was lots and lots of em flying over my head and chirping, and settling on the fence, for a whole hour after Tyke was laid to rest -- that's something I'll never forget -- I wish I had a camera at the time but God and Me knows it and saw it. Now Honey I know this is going to hurt you but I had to tell you somehow... I'm so sick not physically but heart sick... I just cant believe or realize that my Beautiful little Tyke is no more -- and that I wont be seeing him come through his little "Shanty" or Walking through the green grass ... PS. I've got to dismantle Tyke's shanty, I just cant go out there and see it empty -- as is. Well Honey, write soon again and be kind to yourself. Pray the real "God" -- Your old Mom XXXXXX."
So when Monsanto told me the news and I was sitting there smiling with happiness the way all people feel when they come out of a long solitude either in the woods or in a hospital bed, bang, my heart sank, it sank in fact with the same strange idiotic helplessness as when I took the unfortunate deep breath on the seashore -- All the premonitions tying in together.
Monsanto sees that I'm terribly sad, he sees my little smile (the smile that came over me in Monterey just so glad to be back in the world after the solitudes and I'd walked around the streets just bemusedly Mona Lisa'ing at the sight of everything) -- He sees now how that smile has slowly melted away into a mawk of chagrin -- Of course he cant know since I didn't tell him and hardly wanta tell it now, that my relationship with my cat and the other previous cats has always been a little dotty: some kind of psychological identification of the cats with my dead brother Gerard who'd taught me to love cats when I was 3 and 4 and we used to lie on the floor on our bellies and watch them lap up milk -- The death of "little brother" Tyke indeed -- Monsanto seeing me so downcast says "Maybe you oughta go back to the cabin for a few more weeks -- or are you just gonna get drunk again" -- "I'm gonna get drunk yes"
[. . .]
It was the most happy three weeks of my life [the three weeks at Ferlinghetti's cabin in Bixby canyon] dammit and now this has to happen, poor little Tyke -- You should have seen him a big beautiful yellow Persian the kind they call calico" -- "Well you still have my dog Homer, and how was Alf out there? " -- "Alf the Sacred Burro, he ha, he stands in groves of trees in the afternoon suddenly you see him it's almost scarey, but I fed him apples and shredded wheat and everything" (and animals are so sad and patient I thought as I remembered Tyke's eyes and Alf's eyes, ah death, and to think this strange scandalous death comes also to human beings, yea to Smiler [Ferlinghetti] even, poor Smiler, and poor Homer his dog, and all of us) -- I'm also depressed because I know how horrible my mother now feels all alone without her little chum in the house back there three thousand miles (and indeed by Jesus it turns out later some silly beatniks trying to see me broke the windowpane in the front door trying to get in and scared her so much she barricaded the door with furniture all the rest of that summer).
Sweet gone Jack really did try to be a good boy and give up the booze and dissipation and all the near occasions of sin & temptation that fame brought him once he made it in '57 with the publication of On the Road. Here he is arrived at Lawrence Ferlinghett's (Lorenzo Monsanto's) cabin in Bixby Canyon, Big Sur:
And in the flush of the first few days of joy I confidently tell myself (not expecting what I'll do in three weeks only) "no more dissipation, it's time for me to quietly watch the world and even enjoy it, first in woods like these, then just calmly walk and talk among people of the world, no booze, no drugs, no binges, no bouts with beatniks and drunks and junkies and everybody, no more I ask myself the question O why is God torturing me, that's it, be a loner, travel, talk to waiters only, in fact, in Milan, Paris, just talk to waiters, walk around, no more self-imposed agony . . . it's time to think and watch and keep concentrated on the fact that after all this whole surface of the world as we know it now will be covered with the silt of a billion years in time.. . Yay, for this, more aloneness" -- "Go back to childhood, just eat apples and read your Cathechism -- sit on curbstones, the hell with the hot lights of Hollywood" (remembering that awful time only a year earlier when I had to rehearse my reading of prose a third time under the hot lights of the Steve Allen Show in the Burbank studio, one hundred technicians waiting for me to start reading, Steve Allen watching me expectant as he plunks the piano, I sit there on the dunce's stool and refuse to read a word or open my mouth, "I dont have to R E H E A R S E for God's sake Steve! " -- "But go ahead, we just wanta get the tone of your voice, just this last time, I'll let you off the dress rehearsal" and I sit there sweating not saying a word for a whole minute as everybody watches, finally I say, "No I cant do it, " and I go across the street to get drunk) (but surprising everybody the night of the show by doing my job of reading just fine, which surprises the producers and so they take me out with a Hollywood starlet who turns out to be a big bore trying to read me her poetry and wont talk love because in Hollywood man love is for sale)... So even that marvelous, long remembrances of life all the time in the world to just sit there or lie there or walk about slowly remembering all the details of life which now because a million lightyears away have taken on the aspect (as they must've for Proust in his sealed room) of pleasant movies brought up at will and projected for further study -- And pleasure -- As I imagine God to be doing this very minute, watching his own movie, which is us. (Big Sur, ch. 6, pp. 24-25)
. . .
from the wheel of the quivering meat conception and the granting of your wish:
"The wheel of the quivering meat conception . . . . . . I wish I was free of that
slaving meat wheel and safe in heaven dead." (Mexico City Blues, 1959,
In 1955, The Paris Review paid a struggling Jack Kerouac fifty dollars for an excerpt from a then unpublished manuscript. The excerpt appeared as a short story titled “The Mexican Girl” and, after much acclaim, was picked up a year later by Martha Foley’s The Best American Short Stories. Due in large part to the success of “The Mexican Girl,” On the Road was soon accepted by Viking Press; the full novel was published in 1957. (reference)
Here is an audio clip of "The Mexican Girl." Meanwhile, the Mexican Girl, Bea Franco, has been found, written up, and assumes her place in the Beat pantheon.
Lest we forget, however, "Pretty girls make graves." (The Dharma Bums)
I thought of Carolyn in September and I thought I ought to check the obituaries. She died September 20th at age 90, her longevity as if in counterpoise to the short tenures of her main men, wildman Neal Cassady, the Dean Moriarty of Kerouac's 1957 On the Road, and the brooding Jack Kerouac himself. Carolyn played the stabilizer to the mania of the one and the melancholy of the other. Both quit the sublunary before the '60s had run their course. The tale of Jack's end has been told too many times, though I will tell it again on 21 October, the 44th anniversary of his exit from the "slaving meat wheel." Neal's demise is less frequently recounted.
died in February of 1968, also of substance abuse, having quaffed a nasty
concotion of pulque and Seconals, while walking the railroad tracks near San Miguel de
Allende, Mexico. Legend has it that Cassady had been counting the ties and that
his last word was "64, 928." (Cf. William Plummer, The Holy Goof: A
Biography of Neal Cassady, Paragon, 1981, pp. 157-158.)
Carolyn kept the beat while the wildmen soloed, seeking ecstasy where it cannot be found.
May all who sincerely seek beatitude find it. Kerouac: "I want to be sincere." May Jack with his visions of Gerard, of Cody, finally enjoy the ultimate beat vision, the visio beata.
A minor quibble. Your recent post ("Forever Reading . . .") is in error, I'm afraid. After noticing the mistake on more than one occasion throughout several years following your wonderful blog, surely the time has come that I assist a fellow stickler. Schopenahuer did not author the line, "For ever reading, never to be read;" he merely quoted Alexander Pope, who once said,
I only know the verse myself from reading R.J. Hollingdale's translation of the Great Pessimist's essays and aphorisms, so I can see how one might attribute it thus. But alas, I know how much you honor precision, so I'm compelled to help where I can. That's it -- the first error I've been able to catch since 2005 or so. Excellent work, I'd say.
Ad majorem Dei gloriam!
Mr. Fitzgerald turns out to be correct. In "On Thinking for Oneself," an essay I had read circa 1980, Schopenhauer does indeed quote Alexander Pope, though only the words "For ever reading, never to be read." And the reference he gives is a little different: Dunciad iii, 194.
I in turn have a quibble with Mr. Fitzgerald's "minor quibble." A quibble is minor by definition, so 'minor quibble' is a pleonasm. Pleonasm, however, is but a peccadillo.
October is Kerouac month hereabouts, but aficionados will want to read the recent Football and the Fall of Jack Kerouac, a New Yorker piece that raises the question of the contribution of football-induced brain trauma to Kerouac's decline and early death.
In The New Criterion, Bruce Bawer lays into Kerouac's poetry with some justification:
Grimly reconciled though one may be to the annual flood of books by and about the Beat Generation, it’s particularly depressing to see Jack Kerouac’s poetry, of all things, enshrined in the Library of America, that magnificent series designed to preserve for posterity the treasures of our national literature. To read through these seven hundred–odd pages of Kerouac’s staggeringly slapdash effusions set in elegant Galliard, outfitted with the usual meticulous editorial apparatus, and bound—like Twain’s novels and Lincoln’s speeches—in a beautiful Library of America volume is enough to trigger a serious attack of cognitive dissonance.
The Essays of Montaigne, vol. I, tr. Trechmann, Oxford UP, no date, ch. 50, p. 295:
Why shall I not judge Alexander at table, talking and drinking to excess, or when he is fingering the chess-men? What chord of his mind is not touched and kept employed by this silly and puerile game? I hate it and avoid it because it is not play enough, and because it is too serious as an amusement, being ashamed to give it the attention which would suffice for some good thing. He was never more busy in directing his glorious expedition to the Indies; nor is this other man in unravelling a passage on which depends the salvation of the human race. See how our mind swells and magnifies this ridiculous amusement; how it strains all its nerves over it! How fully does this game enable every one to know and form a right opinion of himself! In no other situation do I see and test myself more thoroughly than in this. What passion is not stirred up by this game: anger [the clock-banger!] spite [the spite check!], impatience [the hasty move!], and a vehement ambition to win in a thing in which an ambition to be beaten would be more excusable! For a rare pre-eminence, above the common, in a frivolous matter, is unbefitting a man of honour. What I say in this example may be said in all others. Every particle, every occupation of a man betrays him and shows him up as well as any other.
Applying what Montaigne himself says in his final sentence to his writing of this essay, we may hazard the guess that he was much enamoured of the royal game, but not very good at it, and so here takes his revenge upon it, its goddess Caissa, and her acolytes. You will notice how onesided his portrayal is. He displayed the same defect in his remarks on clothing. But he is a Frenchman and so more concerned with witty phrasings than with the sober truth. The essay is delightfully brilliant nonetheless.
I learned yesterday that there was a Dutch novelist (1882-1961) who rejoiced under the pen name, Nescio, which is Latin for I don't know. His Amsterdam Stories is now available in English. Memo to self: get a copy!
Nescio would be a good title for a philosopher's weblog. Plato's Socrates is the hero and patron saint of philosophers, and he was the man who knew his ignorance. Intellectual humility is built into philosophy's name, philosophia, which signifies the acquisitive love of wisdom, not its possession.
Ideologues possess, or think they do. Philosophy dispossesses them of their pretended possessions.
Nowadays it is perhaps the ideologues of neurobabble who are in direst need of such dispossession.
I just now came across an excellent post by D. G. Myers in defense of the harsh style. Excerpts:
. . . the harsh style is first cousin to the plain style. They share a genetic predisposition, inherited from their ancestors the anti-Ciceronians and anti-Petrarchans, for clarity and exact statement (which are, of course, the same thing). The harsh style demands clarification, and knows there is a critical difference between clearing the air and freshening it. Where the plain stylist is content to speak definitively and to the point, the harsh stylist goes further, excoriating amiable blandness and sumptuous qualification. He is the sworn enemy of anything that menaces clarity and exact statement, whether it be accredited confusion, folk mythology, self-satisfied blunder, or political ideology.
[. . .]
It is no accident that so many harsh stylists are Jews. Judaism is a religion without catechism or dogma, and as a consequence, the Jewish tradition places great value upon loud-voiced and teeth-baring debate—as long as it is a makhlokhet leshem shamayim (“a dispute for the sake of heaven”). As long as a dispute is for the sake of heaven, there are no restrictions on “tone,” no code of manners, because how is it possible to be too aggressive and discourteous for the sake of heaven?
[Here I must digress to address a pet peeve. Something called “Feser’s tone” is the subject of occasional handwringing, not only among some of my secularist critics, but also among a handful of bed-wetters in the Christian blogosphere. But there is no such thing as “Feser’s tone,” if that is meant to refer to some vituperative modus operandi of mine. Sometimes my writing is polemical; usually it is not. I have written five books and edited two others. Exactly one of them -- The Last Superstition -- is polemical. Of course, some of my non-academic articles and blog posts are also polemical. But that is an approach I take only to a certain category of opponent, and typically toward people who have themselves been polemical and are merely getting a well-earned taste of their own medicine. Complaining about this is like complaining about police who shoot back at bank robbers. I’ve addressed the question of why and under what circumstances polemics are justified in this post and in other posts you’ll find linked to within it. End of digression.]
In Misattributed to Socrates, I announced my opposition to "misquotation, misattribution, the retailing of unsourced quotations, the passing off of unchecked second-hand quotations, and sense-altering context suppression." But I left one out: the willful fabrication of 'quotations.' And yesterday I warned myself and others against pseudo-Latin.
Today I received from Claude Boisson an example of a willful fabrication of a 'quotation' in pseudo-Latin:
An anecdote on pseudo-Latin + French bullshit rolled into one.
A rather infamous but self-satisfied French sociologist, Michel Maffesoli (yes, some of our sociologists are as bad as some of our philosophers), recently gave an interview in one of the major weeklies, L'Express, in which he said "Everybody knows the Cartesian sentence Cogito ergo sum, but we tend to forget the rest: Cogito ergo sum in arcem meum."
[I think therefore I am in my castle.]
I ferociously answered that in an article of his, available on line, he had already committed the same sin, unforgettable for a university professor, of forging a quotation ("the Latin formula in its entirety is more interesting" he had stated). And this was in a development supposed to prove that the concept of the individual is ascribable to "the beginning of modernity", since, only "collective thought" was known to the benighted thinkers of the Dark Ages.
I then told him
(1) that the Discours de la méthode was written in French, and was translated into Latin seven years later by Etienne de Courcelles, so there was no real need for showing off Latin (Je pense donc je suis being the original Cartesian French);
(2) that the invention in arcem meum is, alas!, doubly mistaken since it piles a syntactic error ("in" with a local meaning must be followed by an ablative) onto a morphological error (the name "arx" is feminine), so the real Latin should read in arce mea; no scholar would have been guilty of these atrocious mistakes in Descartes' day;
(3) that the metaphor of the "citadel of the soul" was known to such people as John of Salisbury (who duly wrote in arce animae) in the 12th century, and long before him to the Stoics, including Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius;
(4) that for anybody desirous to meditate on "modernity", Saul Steinberg's jocular Cogito ergo Cartesius sum was perhaps of more interest than a forged quotation.
All this is easily accessible on the Internet.
Disgusting! Another example of the destruction of the universities and the decline of the humanities 'thanks' to leftism, post-modernism, and scientism.
Here is a passage from Thomas McGuane, Nothing but Blue Skies, Houghton-Mifflin, 1992, pp. 201-202, to which I have added hyperlinks.
He [Frank Copenhaver] turned on the radio and listened to an old song called "Big John": everybody falls down a mine shaft; nobody can get them out because of something too big to pry; Big John comes along and pries everybody loose but ends up getting stuck himself; end of Big John. Frank guessed it was a story of what can happen to those on the top of the food chain.
On to an oldies station and the joy of finding Bob Dylan: "You've got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend." No one compares with this guy, thought Frank. I feel sorry for the young people of today with their stupid fucking tuneless horseshit; that may be a generational judgment but I seriously doubt it. Frank paused in his thinking , then realized he was suiting up for his arrival in Missoula. In a hurricane of logging trucks, he heard, out of a hole in the sky the voice of Sam Cooke: "But I do know that I love you." Frank began to sweat. "And I know that if you love me too, what a wonderful world this would be."
Yesterday I said I was opposed to ". . . misquotation, misattribution, the retailing of unsourced quotations, the passing off of unchecked second-hand quotations, and sense-altering context suppression." An example of the last-mentioned follows.
Here is a famous passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance" rarely quoted in full:
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words and tomorrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. (Ziff, 183)
People routinely rip the initial clause of this passage out of its context and take Emerson to be attacking logical consistency. Or else they quote only the first sentence, or the first two sentences. An example by someone who really ought to know better is provided by Robert Fogelin in his book, Walking the Tightrope of Reason (Oxford UP, 2001). Chapter One, "Why Obey the Laws of Logic?," has among its mottoes (p. 14) the first two sentences of the Emerson quotation above. The other three mottoes, from Whitman, Nietzsche, and Aristotle, are plainly about logical consistency.
It should be clear to anyone who reads the entire passage quoted above in the context of Emerson's essay that Emerson’s dictum has nothing to do with logical consistency and everything to do with consistency of beliefs over time. The consistency in question is diachronic rather than synchronic. A “little mind” is “foolishly consistent” if it refuses to change its beliefs when change is needed due to changing circumstances, further experience, or clearer thinking. It should be clear that if I believe that p at time t, but believe that ~p at later time t*, then there is no time at which I hold logically inconsistent beliefs. Doxastic alteration, like alteration in general, is noncontradictory for the simple reason that properties which are contradictory when taken in abstracto are had at different times. My coffee changes from hot to non-hot, and thus has contradictory attributes when we abstract from the time of their instantiation. But since the coffee instantiates them at different times, there is no contradiction such as would cause us to join Parmenides in denying the reality of the changeful world.
Belief change is just a special case of this. Suppose a politician changes her position for some good reason. There is not only nothing wrong with this, it shows an admirable openness. She goes from believing in a progressive tax scheme to believing in a flat tax, say. Surely there is no logical contradiction involved, and for two reasons.
First, the property of believing that a progressive tax is warranted is not the contradictory, but merely the contrary, of the property of believing that a flat tax is warranted. (They cannot both be instantiated at the same time, but it is possible that neither be instantiated.) Second, the properties are had at different times. A logical contradiction ensues only when one simultaneously maintains both that p and that ~p.
Emerson’s sound point, then, is that one should not make a fetish out of doxastic stasis: there is nothing wrong with being ‘inconsistent’ in the sense of changing one’s beliefs when circumstances change and as one gains in experience and insight. But this is not to say that one should adopt the antics of the flibbertigibbet. Relative stability of views over time is an indicator of character.
Before leaving this topic, let's consider what Walt Whitman has to say in the penultimate section 51 of “Song of Myself” in Leaves of Grass:
Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Here it appears that Whitman is thumbing his nose at logical consistency. If so, the Emersonic and Whitmanic dicta ought not be confused. But confuse them is precisely what Fogelin does when he places the Emerson and Whitman quotations cheek-by-jowl on p. 14 of his book.
I am a foe of misquotation, misattribution, the retailing of unsourced quotations, the passing off of unchecked second-hand quotations, and sense-altering context suppression. Have I ever done any of these things? Probably. 'Suffering' as I do from cacoethes scribendi, it is a good bet that I have committed one or more of the above. But I try to avoid these 'sins.'
This morning I was reading from Karl Menninger, M.D., Whatever Became of Sin? (Hawthorn Books, 1973). On p. 156, I found this quotation:
Our youth today love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect for older people. Children nowadays are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers.
At the bottom of the page there is a footnote that reads: "Socrates, circa 425 B. C. Quoted in Joel Fort, The Pleasure Seekers (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969)."
I was immediately skeptical of this 'quotation.' In part because I had never encountered the passage in the Platonic dialogues I have read, but also because the quotation is second-hand. So I took to the 'Net and found what appears to be a reputable site, Quote Investigator.
. . . was crafted by a student, Kenneth John Freeman, for his Cambridge dissertation published in 1907. Freeman did not claim that the passage under analysis was a direct quotation of anyone; instead, he was presenting his own summary of the complaints directed against young people in ancient times.
FALSE APHORISMS are not as rare as one might think. More significant than Wilde's, on account of its influence, is Marx's dismissal of religion as "the opium of the people." For this implies that religion is adopted purely for its ability to soothe the wounds of society, and that there is some other condition to which humanity might advance in which religion would no longer be needed. Both those implications are false, but they are boiled into a stock cube as tasty as any that has been seen on the intellectual menu. How many would-be intellectuals have dissolved this cube into their prose and given their thought, in the manner of Christopher Hitchens, a specious air of wisdom?
Permit me a quibble. Should we call a striking formulation lifted from a wider context an aphorism? I don't think so. An aphorism by my lights is a pithy observation intended by its author to stand alone. Accordingly, Marx's famous remark is not an aphorism. The wider context is provided here.
Today is The International Day of Translators and in my blog I dared to use one of your thougts from your blog, to show how difficult it can get to translate some thoughful ideas into another language.
Your statement I have borrowed was, "Silence is a grating clangor to the unwhole man."
I also suggested a translation and encouraged the readers to provide their critical analysis and possible (better) translation variants.
The blog post has received a very good following so far, people especially speculated about the poetic figure of "grating clangor" and the philosophical aspect of the "unwhole man."
Somebody also suggested a reversed translation of one of the Slovak versions into English: "Silence is a scratch and clangor in the ear of a man lacking inner integrity."
If your time allows, can you please let us know, whether this is close to your original idea, or is it absolutely ridiculous?
Thank you very much,
Dear Mr. Šebo,
I am glad you enjoyed my aphorism and found it stimulating. I wrote it on 3 January 1972 while a young man living in a garret in Salzburg, Austria. When I opened the skylight in the bathroom I got a view of the Salzburg Festung, 'fastness' being a nice old poetic English word for Festung.
As for your reverse translation, I would say that it conveys the idea that I was trying to express, but does so in a way that violates one of the rules for a good aphorism. The good aphorist aims at economy of expression. A good aphorism is terse. "Scratch and" is superfluous, as is "to the ear." Clangor is a loud ringing sound; sounds are perceived through the ears; so there is no need to add "to the ear." 'Clangor' has the added virtue of sounding like what it means. The 'resonance' of the word is diminished by the addition of "scratch and." "Unwhole man" is a more poetic and economical way of saying "man lacking inner integrity." But that is what I meant.
At the time I wrote the aphorism I may have been reading Max Picard who wrote a book entitled The World of Silence. Here is something about Picard.
This is Danny Lanzetta. I saw your blog posting in response to my piece in the Huffington Post last week, "In Defense of Jack Kerouac..." Thanks for reading.
In your reaction, you wrote of my link to that famous OTR passage: "Lanzetta seems to be suggesting that this is a particularly bad specimen of Kerouac's scrivening."
I went back and looked at the passage in question. Your reading of it could not be more correct. That is absolutely what I wrote. However, it is not what I meant. My point was supposed to be that Kerouac's "madness" sometimes led to the most beautiful and ecstatic writing one could ever read (thus, the link), while at other times it led to the mess that became his personal life (such as his terrible treatment of his daughter, Jan). After countless proofreadings and going through my piece with a fine-toothed comb, I simply missed the way that sentence read. A simple adjective, appropriately placed, could've saved me. Alas, I missed it. I apologize for the confusion.
I'd be grateful if you could pass along my apologies to your readers. Luckily, it was only a case of bad writing (my own) and not what would be an egregious denouncement of one of the most beautiful sentences ever put to paper.
Well, Danny, there is certainly no need to apologize. If you had meant that the famous OTR passage was the sort of purple prose an over-excited sophomore might write, that would have been a defensible claim. But I am glad that is not what you meant. In any case, it is very easy for a writer to fail to say what he means.
I must say I was very impressed at your willingness to accept criticism.
I have discovered the aphorisms of Stanislaw Jerzy Lec via a reference in a book by Josef Pieper. Here are a few that impressed me from More Unkempt Thoughts (Curtis Publishing, 1968, tr. Jacek Galazka), the only book of Lec's I could easily lay hands on.
No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible. (9)
Why can't you believe in paradise on earth when you know there is hell on earth? (10)
When they blow the horn of plenty this loud, it must be empty. (15)
In him there is a void filled to the brim with erudition. (18)
Do not greet people with open arms. Why make yourself easier to crucify? (19)
Take good care of yourself: Property of the State. (22)
Cannibals prefer men who have no spines. (28)
To keep fit fame needs the massage of applause. (31)
Ladies, do not complain about men: their aims are as transparent as your clothes. (36)
The strongest brakes fail on the path of least resistance. (37)
Percussion wins every discussion. (38)
You cannot rely on people to remember, or, alas, to forget. (42).
In some countries life is so open you can spot the Secret Police everywhere. (42)
Not every shi- can age gracefully and become valuable guano. (48)
When men a dangerous disease did 'scape Of old they gave a cock to Aesculape Let me give two, that doubly am got free From my disease's danger, and from thee.
Ben Jonson (1753?-1637) from Epigrams and Epitaphs (London: Faber and Faber, 1977), p. 27.
At the very end of the Phaedo, having drunk the hemlock, Socrates is reported by Plato as saying to Crito, "I owe a cock to Asclepius; do not forget to pay it." (tr. F. J. Church) Asclepius is the Greek god of healing. Presumably, Socrates wanted to thank the god for his recovery from the sickness of life itself.
Nietzsche comments at the the beginning of "The Problem of Socrates" in The Twilight of the Idols:
Concerning life, the wisest men of all ages have judged alike: it is no good. Always and everywhere one has heard the same sound from their mouths -- a sound full of doubt, full of melancholy, full of weariness of life, full of resistance to life. Even Socrates said, as he died: "To live -- that means to be sick a long time: I owe Asclepius the Savior a rooster." (tr. W. Kaufmann)
But now I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.
— Umberto Eco
The world is a play of phenomena, an enigmatic play of appearances beneath which there is no reality. Harmless in itself, the world is made terrible by us when we make the mad attempt to lay bare an underlying truth it fails to possess. Part of Eco's thought, I take it, is that those who seek the world's underlying truth fool themselves into thinking that they have found it, and having convinced themselves that they are now in possession of it, feel entitled and perhaps even obligated to impose it on others for their own good. But these others, naturally, resist the imposition and react violently. Hence the pursuit of the truth leads to contention and bloodshed. Better to live and let live and admit that there is a variety of perspectives, a diversity of interpretations, but no God's Eye perspective and no final interpretation, let alone an uninterpreted reality in itself, a true world hidden by the world of appearances. The world is interpretation all the way down. Being has no bottom.
The line of thought is seductive but incoherent. If the world is an enigma, then it is true that it is an enigma. If it is harmless, then it is true that it harmless. If it is made terrible by our attempt to interpret it, then it is true that it is made terrible by our attempt to interpret it. If our attempt is mad, then it is true that our attempt is mad. And if it has no underlying truth, then it is true that it has no underlying truth.
If that is the truth, then there is after all an underlying truth and the world cannot be a play of relativities, of shifting perspectives, of mere interpretations. If the world is such-and-such, then it is, and doesn't merely seem.
Kerouac's work is undoubtedly sophomoric at times. He is hopelessly naïve about people, which sometimes leads to this and other times just comes off as laziness, a selfish desire to write the way he wanted to write and live the way he wanted to live, collateral damage be damned.
The first link is to this OTR passage:
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes 'Awww!"
Lanzetta seems to be suggesting that this is a particularly bad specimen of Kerouac's scrivening. But although too often quoted, it is passages like this that grabbed my attention and gave me shivers back in the '60s and that still do now in my 60s. My 'beatitude' is considerably more measured these days, and it's a good thing too: too much 'madness' leads to an early grave. Jack's prodigious quaffing of the joy juice caught up with him in '69 at the tender age of 47, and his hero Neal Cassady (the Dean Moriarty of On the Road) was found dead on the railroad tracks near San Miguel Allende, Mexico the year before a few days shy of his 42nd birthday.
But it is for the hyper-romanticism and the heartfelt gush & rush that some of us read Kerouac still despite his many literary flaws, not to mention the mess he made of his life and the lives of others. He was no cool beatnik. He was mad to live, to talk, to feel, to know, to be saved. He was a restless dreamer, a lonesome traveler, a dharma seeker, a desolation angel passing through this vale of tears & mist, a pilgrim on the via dolorosa of this dolorous life, a drifter on the river of samsara hoping one day to cross to the Far Shore.
For all his claims of erudition, Vidal suffered the wages of the public autodidact. I noticed he quoted Latin ad nauseam — and nearly always with his nouns and adjectives not just in the wrong cases (especially the confusion of the accusative and ablative in preposition phrases), but predictably in the fashion of those who like to copy down Latin phrases but cannot read a complete Latin sentence. By his sixties, Vidal had degenerated into a conspiracy theorist, and his embarrassing late-life infatuation with Timothy McVeigh caught the eye of the goddess Nemesis.
At any given time I am reading twenty or so books. One of them at the moment is Susan Sontag, As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks 1964-1980, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2012. In the midst of a lot of stuff, there are some gems. Here is one:
Aphorism is aristocratic thinking: this is all the aristocrat is willing to tell you; he thinks you should get it fast, without spelling out all the details. Aphoristic thinking constructs thinking as an obstacle race: the reader is expected to get it fast and move on. An aphorism is not an argument; it is too well-bred for that. (512)
The last line is the best. There is something plebeian about argument. The thought is pure Nietzsche. See "The Problem of Socrates" in Twilight of the Idols (tr. Kaufmann):
Section 4: Socrates' decadence is suggested not only by the admitted wantonness and anarchy of his instincts, but also by the hypertrophy of the logical faculty . . . .
Section 5: With Socrates, Greek taste changes in favor of dalectics. [. . .] What must first be proved is worth little. Wherever authority still forms part of good bearing, where one does not give reasons but commands, the dialectician is a kind of buffoon . . . . Socrates was the buffoon who got himself taken seriously . . . .
Whether or not argument is plebeian, it has no place in an aphorism. As I put it:
An aphorism that states its reasons is no aphorism at all. But the reasons are there, though submerged, like the iceberg whose tip alone is visible. An aphorism, then, is the tip of an iceberg of thought.
Aphorisms and poems have this in common: neither can justify what they say while remaining what they are.
The Sontag-Nietzsche view seems to be that one needn't have reasons for what one aphoristically asserts; mine is that one should have them but not state them, leastways, not in the aphorisms themselves.
Addendum, 4:30 PM: That indefatigable argonaut of cyberspace, the ever-helpful Dave Lull, librarian non pareil, friend of bloggers and the just recipient of their heart-felt encomia, sent me a link to a post by James Geary entitled Susan Sontag on Aphorisms.
Geary rightly demolishes the silly conceit of another blogger who, commenting on Sontag, characterizes aphorisms as "the ultimate soundbitification of thinking." That is truly awful and deserves to be buried in the deepest and most mephitic nether regions of the blogosphere.
But Geary says something that contradicts my claim above that argument has no place in an aphorism:
And aphorisms are arguments. That’s why they are so often written in declarative or imperative form. An aphorism is only one side of the argument, though.
It appears that Geary is confusing a statement with an argument. Consider Nietzsche's "Some men are born posthumously." This is a declarative sentence but certainly no argument. An argument requires at least one premise and a conclusion. To argue is to support a claim with reasons. Nothing like this is going on in the one-sentence aphorism just quoted.
I purchased Edward Abbey’s posthumous collection of journal extracts entitled Confessions of a Barbarian (ed. Petersen, Little, Brown & Co., 1994) in April of 1997. Here are some journal jottings inspired by it.
From the notebooks of Paul Brunton to the journals of Ed Abbey – from one world to another. Each of us inhabits his own world. You're damned lucked if in a lifetime you meet two or three kindred souls who can enter, even if only a few steps, into one's own world. The common world in which we meet with many is but the lowest common denominator of our private spheres of meaning.
Abbey bears the marks of an undisciplined man, undisciplined in mind and in body. A slovenly reasoner, a self-indulger.
Paul Brunton, Ed Abbey, Whittaker Chambers, Gustav Bergmann . . . mysticism, nature, politics, ontology . . . . The wild diversity of human interests and commitments. It never ceases to fascinate and astonish me.
Ed Abbey: a romantic, the makings of a quester, but swamped by his sensuality. Held down by the weight of the flesh. The religious urge peeps out here and there in his journals, but his crudity is ever-ready to stifle any upward aspirations.
Abbey: the sex monkey rode him hard night and day. But did he want to throw him off? Hell no! Augustine wanted to be chaste, but not right away. Abbey did not want to be chaste. Can an incontinent man gain any true and balanced insight into the world and life? Lust, like pride, dims the eyes of the mind, and eventually blinds them.
The sex monkey in tandem with the booze monkey, a tag team tough to beat.
Which is more manly, to battle one’s sensuality like Augustine, or to wallow in it like Abbey? Is it cock and balls that make the man? Clothes? Social status? Money? Political power? Big truck? (Abbey: "The bigger the truck the smaller the penis.") Or is it that weak little Funklein, the fragile germ of divine lght that we carry within?
The crudity of Abbey, the elevation of Thoreau.
Abbey: a tremendous sensitivity to the beauties of nature and music, but larded over with an abysmal crudity. Half-educated, self-indulgent, willful. But he knows it, and a tiny part of him wants to do something about it, but he can’t. His base soul is too strong for his noble soul. Goethe’s Faust complained, “Zwei Seelen, ach, wohnen in meiner Brust, und der einer will sich von den anderen trennen!” Abbey could have made the same complaint about two incompatible souls in one breast.
Abbey: proud of his sensuality, his big dick, his five children whom he thinks are just darlings while meanwhile holding that others should not be allowed to procreate. A misanthrope – but not when it comes to himself, his family, and his friends. A tribalist of sorts.
The battle between the noble and the base. In Ed Abbey, the base usually wins.
Ed Abbey made a false god of nature. There is no god but Nature, and Abbey is her prophet.
As for his writing, I'll take it over the social phenomenology of suburban hank-panky served up by East Coast establishmentarians such as John Cheever and John Updike.
The novel is about a famous philosopher who, midway through his career, suddenly finds himself (as Dante did) lost. He feels he has failed his wife and family (the wife has left him), feels he has betrayed his earlier promise and the values of his Wisconsin Lutheran background, has lost interest in his students and has ceased to care about philosophical questions, has lost faith and hope in democracy (and owes a large sum of money to the IRS), scorns the university where he teaches and the unsophisticated town in which it is situated, and has good reason to believe he is losing his mind. He cuts himself off fom his university community by buying a huge rotting house in the country, which turns out to be haunted (if he can trust his wits), and he finds himself up to the neck in evils he never before dreamt of -- middle-of-the-night dumpings of poisonous wastes, witchcraft, backwoods prostitution, a mysterious string of murders, and more. (John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist, Harper and Row, 1983, p. 141.)
On Becoming a Novelist is an excellent book, just unbelievably good. And the above described novel ain't no slouch either. But Gardner, being a damned fool, got himself killed in a motorcycle accident at the tender age of 49. A serious loss to American letters.
Philip Roth, Exit Ghost (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), p. 58:
All in all, being without any need to play a role was preferable to the friction and agitation and conflict and pointlessness and disgust that, as a person ages, can render less than desirable the manifold relations that make for a rich, full life. I stayed away because over the years I conquered a way of life that I (and not just I) would have thought impossible, and there's pride taken in that. I may have left New York because I was fearful, but by paring and paring and paring away, I found in my solitude a species of freedom that was to my liking much of the time. I shed the tyranny of my intensity -- or, perhaps, by living apart for over a decade, merely reveled in its sternest mode.
Embarked as they are upon a life of exploration rather than representation, novelists, like philosophers, may find irksome, confining, and perhaps even impossible the playing of roles. Role-instantiation engenders a richness of relations, and with that comes fullness of life, but these relations are willingly renounced for a solitude austere, cold, but free.
Near the end of Richard Weaver's essay, "Life Without Prejudice," he quotes Milton:
I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world; we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by that which is contrary.
The passage bears comparison with Theodore Roosevelt's remarks about being in the arena.
I like especially the last sentence of the Milton quotation. We are born corrupt, not innocent. We are not here (mainly) to improve the world, but (mainly) to be improved by it. The world's a vale of soul-making. Since this world is a vanishing quantity, it makes little sense to expend energy trying to improve it: when your house is burning down, you don't spruce up the facade. You don't swab the decks of a sinking ship. It makes more sense to spend time and effort on what has a chance of outlasting the transitory. This world's use is to build something that outlasts it.
But this will, pace Milton, require some flight from the world into the cloister where perhaps alone the virtues can be developed that will need testing later in the world.
When I began to read your “Who doesn't need philosophy?” post, I immediately started to think of reasons why adherents of religious and nonreligious worldviews need philosophy as inquiry. Indeed, one can think of many good reasons why such adherents (especially the dogmatic ones) need philosophy.
However, as I continued to read, I noticed the irony of your post (particularly the final paragraph). It seems at least possible that your entry is a dialectic antiphrasis to make the point that we all need philosophy as inquiry, including sincere believers and religious and nonreligious dogmatists. Humanity needs to inquire because humanity needs truth. As Aristotle put it in the first sentence of the Metaphysics, all humans by nature seek to know.
Over the weekend, I found myself wondering whether your post is antiphrastic or literal. Do you really think philosophy as inquiry is unnecessary for the religious person? Or do you think the religious person should philosophize? I think the latter; I am curious to know what you think; either way I appreciate the thought provoking post.
To answer the reader's question I will write a commentary on my post.
Philosophy: Who Doesn't Need It?
The title is a take-off on Ayn Rand's Philosophy: Who Needs It? Rand's rhetorical question is not intended to express the proposition that people do not need philosophy, but that they do. So perhaps we could call the question in her title an antiphrastic rhetorical question.
Who doesn't need philosophy?
I don't approve of one-sentence paragraphs in formal writing, but blogging is not formal writing: it is looser, more personal, chattier, pithier, more direct. And in my formal writing I indent my paragraphs. That too is a nicety that is best dropped in this fast medium.
People who have the world figured out don't need it. If you know what's up when it comes to God and the soul, the meaning of life, the content and basis of morality, the role of state, and so on, then you certainly don't need philosophy. If you are a Scientologist or a Mormon or a Roman Catholic or an adherent of any other religious or quasi-religious worldview then you have your answers and philosophy as inquiry (as opposed to philosophy as worldview) is strictly unnecessary. And same goes for the adherents of such nonreligious worldviews as leftism and scientism and evangelical atheism.
The first two sentences are intended literally and they are literally true. 'Figured out' is a verb of success: if one has really got the world figured out, then he possesses the truth about it. But in the rest of the paragraph a bit of irony begins to creep in inasmuch as the reader is expected to know that it is not the case, and cannot be the case, that all the extant worldviews are true. So by the end of the paragraph the properly caffeinated reader should suspect that my point is that people need philosophy. They need it because they don't know the ultimate low-down, the proof of which is the welter of conflicting worldviews.
(The inferential links that tie There is a welter of conflicting worldviews to People don't know the ultimate low-down to People need philosophy as inquiry all need defense. I could write a book about that. At the moment I am merely nailing my colors to the mast.)
He who has the truth needn't seek it. And those who are in firm possession of the truth are well-advised to stay clear of philosophy with its tendency to sow the seeds of doubt and confusion.
Now the irony is in full bloom. Surely it cannot be the case that both a Communist and a Catholic are in "firm possession of the truth" about ultimate matters. At most one can be in firm possession. But it is also possible that neither are. There is also the suggestion that truth is not the sort of thing about which one side or the other can claim proprietary rights.
Those who are secure in their beliefs are also well-advised to turn a blind eye to the fact of the multiplicity of conflicting worldviews. Taking that fact into cognizance may cause them to doubt whether their 'firm possession of the truth' really is such.
The final paragraph is ironic. I am not advising people to ignore the conflict of worldviews. For that conflict is a fact, and we ought to face reality and not blink the facts. I am making the conditional assertion that if one values doxastic security over truth, then one is well-advised to ignore the fact that one's worldview is rejected by many others. For careful contemplation of that fact may undermine one's doxastic security and peace of mind. (It is not for nothing that the Roman church once had an index librorum prohibitorum.) Note that to assert a conditional is not to assert either its antecedent or its consequent. So it is logically consistent of me to assert the above conditional while rejecting both its antecedent and its consequent.
The reader understood my entry correctly as "a dialectic antiphrasis to make the point that we all need philosophy as inquiry, including sincere believers and religious and nonreligious dogmatists."
In saying that I of course give the palm to Athens over Jerusalem. But, if I may invoke that failed monk and anti-Athenian irrationalist, Luther: Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders.
Brand Blanshard, On Philosophical Style (Indiana University Press, 1967), pp. 49-50. Originally appeared in 1954. Emphasis added. The most distinguished recent example of imaginative prose in philosophy is certainly George Santayana. Santayana was no man's copy, either in thought or in style. He consistently refused to adopt the prosaic medium in which most of his colleagues were writing. To read him is to be conducted in urbane and almost courtly fashion about the spacious house he occupies, moving noiselessly always on a richly figured carpet of prose. Is it a satisfying experience as one looks back on it? Yes, undoubtedly, if one has been able to surrender to it uncritically. But that, as it happens, is something the philosophical reader is not very likely to do. Philosophy is, in the main, an attempt to establish something by argument, and the reader who reads for philosophy will be impatient to know just what thesis is being urged, and what precisely is the evidence for it. To such a reader Santayana seems to have a divided mind, and his doubleness of intent clogs the intellectual movement. He is, of course, genuinely intent on reaching a philosophic conclusion, but it is as if, on his journey there, he were so much interested also in the flowers that line the wayside that he is perpetually pausing to add one to his buttonhole. The style is not, as philosophic style should be, so transparent a medium that one looks straight through it at the object, forgetting that it is there; it is too much like a window of stained glass which, because of its very richness, diverts attention to itself.
There is no reason why a person should not be a devotee of both truth and beauty; but unless in his writing he is prepared to make one the completely unobtrusive servant of the other, they are sure to get in each other's way. Hence ornament for its own beautiful irrelevant sake must be placed under interdict. Someone has put the matter more compactly: "Style is the feather in the arrow, not the feather in the hat."
It seems to me that far too much Continental philosophy is plagued by the same "divided mind" and "doubleness of intent."
Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1979), pp. 336-337, in a letter to Dr. T. R. Spivey dated 21 June 1959:
I haven't read the article in PR [Paris Review?] or the beat writers themselves. That seems about the most appalling thing you could set yourself to do -- read them. But reading about them and reading what they have to say about themselves makes me think that there is a lot of ill-directed good in them. Certainly some revolt against our exaggerated materialism is long overdue. They seem to know a good many of the right things to run away from, but to lack any necessary discipline. They call themselves holy but holiness costs and so far as I can see they pay nothing. It's true that grace is the free gift of God but to put yourself in the way of being receptive to it you have to practice self-denial. I observe that Baron von Hügel's most used words are derivatives of the word cost. As long as the beat people abandon themselves to all sensual satisfactions, on principle, you can't take them for anything but false mystics. A good look at St. John of the Cross makes them all look sick.
You can't trust them as poets either because they are too busy acting like poets. The true poet is anonymous, as to his habits, but these boys have to look, act, and apparently smell like poets.
This is the only reference to the Beats that I found in The Habit of Being apart from the sentence, "That boy is on the road more than Kerouac, though in a more elegant manner." (p. 373)
And I wonder what Miss O'Connor would say had she lived long enough to read that book by the Holy Goof, Neal Cassady, entitled Grace Beats Karma: Letters from Prison 1958-1960? (Blast Books, 1993) Grace Beats Karma: what a wonderful title, apt, witty, and pithy! I shall have to pull some quotations before October's end.
Arguably, the central figure of the Beat movement was not Kerouac (OTR's Sal Paradise) but Neal Cassady (OTR's Dean Moriarty).
Jack Kerouac's On the Road was published 54 years ago in September, 1957. Joyce Johnson remembers. Excerpts:
Who could have predicted that an essentially plotless novel about the relationship between two rootless young men who seemed constitutionally unable to settle down was about to kick off a culture war that is still being fought to this day? [. . .]
In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman sacrificed his life to a fruitless pursuit of the American dream; Kerouac's two protagonists acted as if that dream was of no importance. On the Road followed Sal and Dean through three years of frenetic transcontinental movement in the late 1940s. Their main goal in life was to "know time," which they could achieve by packing as much intensity as possible into each moment. [. . .]
The two ideas, beat and beatnik -- one substantive and life-expanding, the other superficial and hedonistic -- helped shape the counterculture of the '60s and to this day are confused with each other, not only by Kerouac's detractors but even by some of his most ardent fans. [. . .]
Beatniks were passe from the start, but On the Road has never gone without readers, though it took decades to lose its outlaw status. Only recently was it admitted -- cautiously -- to the literary canon. (The Modern Library has named it one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.) Fifty years after On the Road was first published, Kerouac's voice still calls out: Look around you, stay open, question the roles society has thrust upon you, don't give up the search for connection and meaning. In this bleak new doom-haunted century, those imperatives again sound urgent and subversive -- and necessary.
He led a tormented life, and I cannot help but feel sadness for a would-be rebel who spent most of his life, as did Kerouac, living at home with his mother. He also drank himself to a horrible death. But while it is true that most great writers were tormented souls, it does not follow that most tormented souls were great writers. To call Kerouac's writing mediocre is to do it too much honor: its significance is sociological rather than literary. The fact that his work is now being subjected to near-biblical levels of reverential scholarship is a sign of very debased literary and academic standards.
I have seen some of the most mediocre minds of my generation destroyed by too great an interest in the Beats.
The last line of this quotation parodies the first line of Allen Ginsberg's Howl:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked . . . .
And as for Kerouac's "living at home with his mother," which Dalrymple intends as a slight, the truth is rather that Kerouac's mother lived with him, and with him and Stella Sampas after the two were married on 18 November 1966. (See Gerald Nicosia, Memory Babe, p. 670 ff.) Kerouac was ever the dutiful son, a conservative trait that Dalrymple misses.
How to disentangle profundity from puffery in any obscure formulation? Clear thought stops short, a victim of its own probity; the other kind, vague and indecisive, extends into the distance and escapes by its suspect but unassailable mystery.
Excellent except perhaps for ‘victim,’ which betrays Cioran’s mannered negativism. Substitute ‘beneficiary’ and the thought’s expression approaches perfection.
Indolence saves us from prolixity and thereby from the shamelessness inherent in production. (133)
An exaggeration, but something for bloggers to consider.
To be is to be cornered. (93)
Striking, and certainly no worse than W. V. Quine’s “To be is to be the value of a variable.”
Nothing makes us modest, not even the sight of a corpse. (87)
Cioran hits the mark here: the plain truth is set before us without exaggeration in a concise and striking manner.
Conversation is fruitful only between minds given to consolidating their perplexities. (163)
Brilliant. Philosophy, as Plato remarks (Theaetetus St. 155) and Aristotle repeats (Metaphysics 982b10), originates in wonder or perplexity. Fruitful philosophical conversation, rare as it is and must be given the woeful state of humanity, is therefore a consolidation and appreciation of problems and aporiai, much more than an attempt to convince one’s interlocutor of something. Herein lies a key difference between philosophy and ideology. The ideologue has answers, or thinks he has. And so his conversation is either apologetics or polemics, but not dialog. The philosopher has questions and so with him dialog is possible.
Time, accomplice of exterminators, disposes of morality. Who, today, bears a grudge against Nebuchadnezzar? (178)
This is quite bad, and not become of its literary form, but because the thought is false. If enough time passes, people forget about past injustices. True. But how does it follow that morality is abrogated? Cioran is confusing two distinct propositions. One is that the passage of time disposes of moral memories, memories of acts just and unjust. The other is that the passage of time disposes of morality itself, rightness and wrongness themselves, so that unjust acts eventually become neither just not unjust. The fact that Cioran’s aphorism conflates these two propositions is enough to condemn it, quite apart from the fact that the second proposition is arguably false. A good aphorism cannot merely be clever; it must also express an insight. An insight, of course, is an insight only if it is true. Nor is an aphorism good if it merely betrays a mental quirk of its author. For then it would be of merely psychological or biographical interest.
There is no other world. Nor even this one. What, then, is there? The inner smile provoked in us by the patent nonexistence of both. (134)
A statement of Cioran’s nihilism. Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for us, it is self-contradictory. It cannot be true both that nothing exists and that an inner smile, a bemused realization that nothing exists, exists. So what is he trying to tell us? If you say that he is not trying to tell us anything, then what is he doing? If you say that he is merely playing at being clever, then I say to hell with him: he stands condemned by the very probity that he himself invokes in the first aphorism quoted supra.
Everything is nothing, including the consciousness of nothing. (144)
An even more pithy statement of Cioran’s nihilism. But if the consciousness of nothing is nothing, then there is no consciousness of nothing, which implies that the nihilist of Cioran’s type cannot be aware of himself as a nihilist. Thus Cioran’s thought undermines the very possibility of its own expression. That can’t be good.
Will you accuse me of applying logic to Cioran’s aphorism? But what exempts nihilists from logic? Note that his language is not imperative, interrogative, or optative, but declarative. He is purporting to state a fact, in a broad sense of ‘fact.’ He is saying: this is the way it is. But if there is a way things are, then it cannot be true that everything is nothing. The way things are is not nothing.
“It is of no importance to know who I am since some day I shall no longer be” – that is what each of us should answer those who bother about our identity and desire at any price to coop us up in a category or a definition. (144)
This presupposes that only the absolutely permanent is real and important. It is this (Platonic) assumption that drives Cioran’s nihilism: this world is nothing since it fails to satisfy the Platonic criterion of reality and importance. Now if Cioran were consistently sceptical, he would call this criterion into question, and with it, his nihilism. He would learn to embrace the finite as finite and cheerfully abandon his mannered negativism. If, on the other hand, he really believes in the Platonic criterion – as he must if he is to use it to affirm, by contrast, the nullity of the experienced world – then he ought to ask whence derives its validity. This might lead him away from nihilism to an affirmation of the ens realissimum.
X, who instead of looking at things directly has spent his life juggling with concepts and abusing abstract terms, now that he must envisage his own death, is in desperate straits. Fortunately for him, he flings himself, as is his custom, into abstractions, into commonplaces illustrated by jargon. A glamorous hocus-pocus, such is philosophy. But ultimately, everything is hocus-pocus, except for this very assertion that participates in an order of propositions one dares not question because they emanate from an unverifiable certitude, one somehow anterior to the brain’s career. (153)
A statement of Cioran’s scepticism. But his scepticism is half-hearted since he insulates his central claim from sceptical corrosion. To asseverate that his central claim issues from “an unverifiable certitude” is sheer dogmatism since there is no way that this certitude can become a self-certitude luminous to itself. Compare the Cartesian cogito. In the cogito situation, a self’s indubitability is revealed to itself, and thus grounds itself. But Cioran invokes something anterior to the mind, something which, precisely because of it anteriority, cannot be known by any mind. Why then should we not consider his central claim – according to which everything is a vain and empty posturing – to be itself a vain and empty posturing?
Indeed, is this not the way we must interpret it given Cioran’s two statements of nihilism cited above? If everything is nothing, then surely there cannot be “an unverifiable certitude” anterior to the mind that is impervious to sceptical assault.
Again, one may protest that I am applying logic in that I am comparing different aphorisms with an eye towards evaluating their mutual consistency. It might be suggested that our man is imply not trying to be consistent. But then I say that he is an unserious literary scribbler with no claim on our attention. But the truth of the matter lies a bit deeper: he is trying have it both ways at once. He is trying to say something true but without satisfying the canons satisfaction of which is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition of anything’s being true.
My interim judgement, then, is this. What we have before us is a form of cognitive malfunction brought about by hypertrophy of the sceptical faculty. Doubt is the engine of inquiry. Thus there is a healthy form of scepticism. But Cioran’s extreme scepticism is a disease of cognition rather than a means to it. The writing, though, is brilliant.
The quotations are from E. M. Cioran, Drawn and Quartered (New York: Seaver Books, 1983), translated from the French by Richard Howard.
Is all production vain and shameless? Perhaps not if one keeps one's productions to oneself. But writing books, articles and blog posts is not just production, but publishing, making public. Is publishing mere vanity and self-promotion?
In given cases it can be. And whether one of those cases is my case is not for me to decide. But surely it would be absurd to claim that all publishing by anyone is mere vanity and shameless self-promotion. Take the books of John Searle. He thinks he has solved the mind-body problem. He has done no such thing. Yet his books are enormously rich and stimulating despite some error and confusion. I am glad he has written his many books and made his contribution to our common ongoing philosophical quest. He has given me many hours of pleasure and elevated thought.
All living is self-asserting. But there is self-assertion and there is self-assertion. Personal assertion in the service of the impersonal truth is more than mere personal assertion. Thereby is vanity substantiated and shamelessness redeemed.
Flannery O'Connor, "The Grotesque in Southern Fiction" in Mystery and Manners (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969), pp. 40-42:
All novelists are fundamentally seekers and describers of the real, but the realism of each novelist will depend on his view of the ultimate reaches of reality. Since the eighteenth century, the popular spirit of each succeeding age has tended more and more to the view that the ills and mysteries of life will eventually fall before the scientific advances of man, a belief that is still going strong though this is the first generation to face total extinction because of these advances. If the novelist is in tune with this spirit, if he believes that actions are predetermined by psychic make-up or the economic situation or some other determinable factor, then he will be concerned above all with an accurate reproduction of the things that most immediately concern man, with the natural forces that he feels control his destiny. Such a writer may produce a great tragic naturalism, for by his responsibility to the things he sees, he may transcend the limitations of his narrow vision.
On the other hand, if the writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious, if he looks upon us as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself. His kind of fiction will always be pushing its own limits outward towards the limits of mystery, because for this kind of writer, the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations have been exhausted. Such a writer will be interested in what we don't understand rather than in what we do. He will be interested in possibility rather than in probability. He will be interested in characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace and who act on a trust beyond themselves -- whether they know very clearly what it is they act upon or not. To the modern mind, this kind of character, and his creator, are typical Don Quixotes, tilting at what is not there.
I was struck by this passage because in philosophy too there is a similar distinction. There are those philosophical speleologists who are content to describe and explain the furnishings of Plato's Cave seemingly oblivious to its being a cave, and there are those who are always pushing their own limits outward towards the limits of mystery. For the latter, philosophy's technical minutiae are meaningless unless in the service of a transcending vision.
Those of us who pursue the ethereal should never forget that it is blood, iron, and lead that secure the spaces of tranquillity wherein we flourish.
I found the following in a gun forum: “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” It was attributed to George Orwell.
I don't know whether Orwell wrote those exact words. I rather doubt that he did. But he did write, in Notes on Nationalism, "Those who 'abjure' violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf." The thought is essentially the same, and a good and true thought it is.
Pacifism is for angels. But we are mixed and mixed-up beings, half animal, half angel.
You should never trust any unsourced attribution you find on the Internet .
The following beautiful line of Henry David Thoreau is routinely misquoted:
In wildness is the preservation of the world.
Again and again, people who cannot read what is on the page substitute 'wilderness' for 'wildness.' People see what they want to see, or expect to see. Here is an example of double butchery I found recently:
In wilderness is the preservation of Mankind.
(Warren Macdonald, A Test of Will, Greystone Books, 2004, p. 145.)
Thomas Mann, Diaries 1918-1939, entry of August 5, 1934:
A cynical egotism, a selfish limitation of concern to one's personal welfare and one's reasonable survival in the face of the headstrong and voluptuous madness of 'history' is amply justified. One is a fool to take politics seriously, to care about it, to sacrifice one's moral and intellectual strength to it. All one can do is survive, and preserve one's personal freedom and dignity. I don't endorse Mann's sentiment but I sympathize with it. Hitler came to power in 1933. Imagine the effect that must have had on a man of Mann's sensitivity and spiritual depth. You witness your country, the land of Kant and Schiller, of Dichter und Denker, poets and thinkers, in Heinrich Heine's fine phrase, transformed into a land of Richter und Henker, judges and hangmen.
My response to Mann would be along these lines: It precisely because men of the spirit must survive and survive to create that they must be concerned with politics and with those who can kill and suppress them. You escaped to the USA, but what if there were no such country to which to escape because all of the people of high quality practised your cynical egotism, your selfish limitation to the personal?
One can take politics seriously and do one's bit without sacrificing one's moral and intellectual strength to it. The latter, I agree, would be folly.
Here. I have the book in my library (but of course!) but this site offers among other things information about the people and places mentioned by the good Pepys as he records the quotidiana of an existence unremarkable except for the insight it affords into those far-off times.
How can one not love the 'Net and the love labors of those who toil in its vasty deeps?A peep into the deeps of Pepys.
Bukowski was my last binge, literarily speaking. I feel a Flannery binge in the offing. How's that for catholic tastes? I found a copy of her first novel, Wise Blood, in a used bookstore back in December while on the hunt for Bukowski materials. But I just recently started in on it. Repellent and boring at first, dismal and gothic, but she is clearly a talent of a very high order -- unlike Buk -- so I will press on.
My best piece of scribbling during my Bukowski binge was Charles Bukowski Meets Simone Weil. I note that Flannery was intrigued by Simone, which is not surprising, and discusses the latter in her letters. That will have to be looked into. All in good time. Study everything, join nothing. Nihil humanum, et cetera.
Some write because they like the idea of being a writer. It's romantic or 'cool' or something. Others write to say something that they need to express. Most combine these motivations. The better the writer, the stronger the need to express something that not just needs expression for the psychic health of the writer, but that is worthy of expression.
Charles Bukowski wrote from genuine need. (See so you want to be a writer?) It was his therapy. He could not have believed in the early days of his scribbling that he would ever be able to make a living from it. But from what I have read of him so far, what he wrote is not worth reading except in the way that his writing was worth doing for him. What do I mean?
His writing was self-therapeutic; our reading is motivated by something like the pathologist's interest. We read him to learn about diseases of the mind and spirit.
Through Charles Bukowski I discovered John Fante who I am now reading (Ask the Dust, Black Sparrow, 2000, originally published in 1939) and reading about (Stephen Cooper, Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante, North Point Press, 2000). Here is Bukowski's preface to the Black Sparrow edition of Ask the Dust in which Buk recounts the day he stumbled upon Fante in the L. A. Public Library.
Both lived in and wrote about Los Angeles, which explains part of my interest in both. And then there is the Catholic connection, stronger in Fante than in Bukowski, and the Italian resonance in Fante. Ten years before Kerouac broke into print, Fante's writing had that mad, onrushing, intoxicated Kerouac quality as witness the following passage three pages into Ask the Dust:
Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town.
A day and another day and the day before, and the library with the big boys in the shelves, old Dreiser, old Mencken, all the boys down there, and I went to see them, Hya Dreiser, Hya Mencken, Hya, hya,; there's a place for me, too and it begins with B., in the B shelf, Arturo Bandini, make way for Arturo Bandini, his slot for his book, and I sat at the table and just looked at the place where my book would be, right there close to Arnold Bennett, but I'd be there to sort of bolster up the B's, old Arturo Bandini, one of the boys, until some girl came along, some scent of perfume through the fiction room, some click of high heels to break up the monotony of my fame. Gala day, gala dream!