Future, Present, & Past:
Speculative~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.
Tuesday, May 7, 2013
Monday, April 22, 2013
I am late in putting up the Brief Review for April. And this review calls for a disclaimer. I expect to review at least two or three political, economics, and foreign-affairs blogs this year. I assume it goes without saying that I endorse neither any specific opinion nor any general platform exemplified by these blogs. What I do appreciate, and what I commend, is good writing, and intelligent argument.
And with that, I introduce the blog The Duck of Minerva. (Well, "introduce" is a bit of presumption, as the blog dates back to 2005, and it's been in my blogroll for three years, and is read by more people than mine by a couple of orders of magnitude.) Strictly speaking, this is a tiny cheat, for I have mentioned or referred to the Duck before, but it was a while ago, relatively in passing, and (I think) only once. Besides having the best name for any political blog (though on some days, I like Stalin's Moustache better), The Duck has consistently smart posts, well written, and frequent enough to reward you most times you check back. There are, inevitably, a few posts about academia, but fewer than you would expect from a blog with authors at Georgetown and Amherst and etc., most if not all of whom are in search of tenure.
You get a bit of a spectrum at the Duck, so generalizing about its platform would be perilous; there are too many folk writing there (the list of guest bloggers is long), and no unanimity. Some folk there are what you'd call "Realists," IR-speaking, some are neoliberal and some are constructivist. In IR-speak these all have connotations and nuances. But I think I won't be far wrong if I call the Duck broadly Keynesian in economics, and roughly Clintonian in terms of Foreign Policy: a sort of liberal-hawk-lite. In short, you will not find here any dark mutterings about the Bilderberg Group or any Trotskyite nostalgia. Positions on Israel are consistently cautious. There's some general support of the #Occupy movement, but it is not foregrounded, nor is it grounded in anything like a critique of class in any Marxist sense . This is, I think, pretty much the standard temperature of academic political science and so of a whole swathe of the next generation of Congressional Aides.
I am often more radical in my sympathies than what I read here; more pessimistic too. But when I want to remember the best side of what the rest of the first world regards as sane, I read the Duck. After all, it is much more likely to be them than me in the halls of power.
Friday, April 19, 2013
Leon Niemoczynski has posted a gorgeous interview with Iain Hamilton Grant over at After Nature. Grant seems to me to have been the dark horse among the so-called "original four" horsemen of the SRists. You could always orient these guys to the work of previous thinkers, of course -- Brassier, say, with regard to Laruelle & the Churchlands, and more recently Sellars; Meillassoux with regard to Hume and Badiou; Harman with regard to, say, Heidegger and Zubiri. (I realize I am being very imprecise here). But Grant's main book at the time, unlike the others, expressly staged his work as a reflection of philosophy "after Schelling." An apparently more modest starting place. It turns out to be a platform for far more than mere commentary.
What I am especially drawn to in Grant's work is the way he reconfigures the underlying platonism in Schelling. I first encountered Philosophies of Nature After Schelling when I was revisiting the Timaeus, and internet research led me to Schelling's youthful commentary on it. Grant offers a sustained engagement with this early work of Schelling's, which was a pleasant surprise for me, since I had started Schelling at the other end, the late "positive philosophy" in the Berlin lectures on Mythology and Revelation. (This is because I was led to Schelling by working back from Rosenzweig and Kierkegaard.) Since my Plato is an "existentialist" Plato, a Plato whose business is the cultivation of experience and not the spinning of theories about two-storey universes, what Grant taught showed me is a strong continuity in Schelling from beginning to end. In his Schelling book Grant does not devote as much systematic attention to the Berlin lectures or even the Weltaltern essays, but his many incidental remarks offer plenty of incidental evidence that if one grants, in braod outline, Schelling's case in this era, one is still engaged with a Platonic "Physics of the Idea."
Schelling conducts the ‘testing of all previous systems’ beginning with the Timaeus commentary. This is in one sense an obvious starting point… however, as a starting point for a modern philosophical physics, it at best seems strange: Plato, the very paradigm of the two-worlds metaphysician! Yet the ‘physics of the All’ demonstrates that Plato is in fact a one-world physicist, proposing, as natural science, the science of becoming, or dynamics. (Philosophies of Nature After Schellingp 20)For Grant, Schelling reads "two-world" metaphysics as stemming essentially from Aristotle's critique of Plato:
While it follows from the Aristotelian partition of ‘physics or secondary philosophy’ (Metaphysics 1037a15-6) from the science of being qua being’ or primary philosophy (1003a1), that metaphysics and physics no longer address the same ‘nature,’ Platonism treats of just one nature, composed of powers and becomings, from which being itself is not exempt. (ibid., p29)This continuity between Plato and the Idealist tradition of which Schelling is simultaneously in some sense the culmination and the overcoming (at least if you read the positive philosophy as the meeting-point between it and existentialism) is also pointed to in the interview:
Idealism, when not eliminative, it seems to me – and I am particularly fond of pointing to some of its less read exemplars, such as Bosanquet or Pringle-Pattison – does not seek to account for one thing in terms of another, but for each thing exactly as it is. Such a view is evident in the fact that, for example, Plato’s auto kath’auto has less to do with Kant’s Ding an sich than with a simpler “itself by itself”: it is a causal account of subjectivity independent of consciousness, or the “it-attractor” by which whatever becomes becomes what it is.(Pringle-Pattison! "Less-read," to be sure. But this mention is far from pointless erudition. Think Reid's "common-sense" philosophy sympathetically critical of Kant-cum-Hegel. In short, "non-eliminative" idealism.)
The interview an is an excellent point of entry into Grant's work if you are unfamiliar with him (I found him the least easy, though not the least congenial, of the horsemen to read, at first). Niemoczynski asks very in-depth questions that that draw out some very thought-through responses. In the context of Niemoczynski's own projects, I was especially interested in this remark by Grant:
These, then, are the operations characteristic of a philosophy of nature: genesis recapitulated in the genesis of isolation cannot be reversed, such that genesis itself is isolated, without an additional operation or continuation of genesis on which that isolation depends. And here, I think, we gain insight into the complex location of the Idea in nature: it is precisely the additional dimension articulated by the operation capable of abstracting its objects from the context on which they are dependent.... philosophers of nature such as Peirce and Whitehead [need to] be recovered not merely as historical instances but rather in the context of how their inquiries into nature present the conceptualization consequent upon it as modifications of precisely that process into which they are inquiring. I am particularly interested in the development of the dialectic of the physical whereby reflection upon it augments it in the dimension of the Idea without making the Idea into the finally determining instance of a nature directed towards it. Nature thought as ontogenesis cannot but have as a consequence that the thought that nature is ontogenetic must be consequent upon an ontogenetic nature.If I may gloss this (and I hope someone will set me straight if I am wrong), this has to do with the claim that nature in some measure includes the capacity to represent nature, and to represent that capacity.
Interesting threads abound in this exchange. There's a very good passage in one of the Niemoczynski's questions about the resonance between Grant's work and Brassier's concerning negativity -- a thinking of an unexperienciable in-itself in both philosophers' work -- and it sheds some light on Niemoczynski's work in some other posts of his as well. Grant's response defending a "polypsychism" (he doesn't use this term, which I've lifted from Harman, but it seems apposite) also puts the question in the context of his broader philosophical project on "Grounds and Powers," which seems to be the working title of his next book. I'm looking forward to it.
Tuesday, March 26, 2013
Relation is a very problematic category. Aquinas says (Summa Theologica, 1 28.2):
In the genera, apart from that of 'relation,' as in quantity and quality, even the true idea of the genus itself is derived from a respect to the subject, for quantity is called the measure of substance, and quality is the disposition of the substance. But the true idea of relation is not taken from its respect to that which it is, but from its respect to something else.I have been re-reading Indefinability by Josephine Pasternak (Boris' sister, one feels obliged to mention, just to get it out of the way). Pasternak's lovely little book seems to have "fallen stillborn," like many a significant philosophical work, despite its admiring "preface" (effectively a short blurb printed on page vii) by Dame Iris Murdoch. In it, Pasternak starts out by insisting that the notion of Relation is, you guessed it, indefinable. Exhibit one in her case is a sleek little demonstration:
Even a complex sentence implying a definition can be reduced to the syntactic skeleton of "S is P," where "S" stands for subject, "is" is a link (but "Link is a kind of relation), and finally, "P" is a predicate.... Would it be possible to define [Relation] in the formal terms of a basic syntactic construction? Relation in it would be the subject; the link "is" (remember, a link is a kind of relation) would be a relation; the "unknown," the "sought for," would stand in the place of "P." We might as well replace the linguistic symbol "unknown" by the graphic punctuation symbol "?". ...The result, though looking monstrous, is correct: Relation (S) Relation (link "is") ? (P), that is:Pasternak's book suffers from a certain unfortunate anti-Aristotelian bias which occasionally mars its elegance with a smear of polemic, and seems to me to be based in part on a misconstrual of the Greek logos, trying to tease apart its various senses (especially "logic" and "word") in a way that feels anachronistic. However, when I read her vis-a-vis another somewhat tendentious anti-Stagirite tract, Robert Pirsig's beautiful Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a certain symmetry emerges.
This construction shows that the attempt to define Relation lands us in a vicious circle where the thing to be defined (namely Relation) is antecedent to its own definition. (Indefinability pp3-4)
Pirsig's book is not always taken seriously by philosophers. Partly this is because it is a novel; partly because it had the misfortune of being a very successful and popular novel; partly because there are, arguably, some mistakes in it. (The only factual mistake I know if is its claim that "Phaedrus" is the Greek for "wolf;" most of the other "mistakes" are, precisely, arguable, and tend to reduce to a certain riding-roughshod over accepted scholarship de jour.) I do take Pirsig seriously. At some point I may devote a post as to why I think he's a significantly under-rated thinker. For now, I want to underscore the resonance between him and Pasternak.
As you know if you've read ZAMM ("an inquiry into values," the subtitle announces) and maybe even if you've just read about it, its central philosophical contention is that Quality is indefinable, and comes (ontologically) before the division of experience into subjective and objective.
Quality is not a thing. It is an event. It is the event at which the subject becomes aware of the object... Quality is not just the result of the collision between subject and object. The very existence of subject and object themselves is deduced from the Quality event. The Quality event is the cause of the subjects and objects, which are then mistakenly presumed to be the cause of the Quality (ZAMM, p 304)This ontological priority leads directly to a defense of Pirsig's claim that Quality is indefinable (although Pirsig had actually formulated this claim earlier):
to take that which has caused us to create the world, and include it within the world we have created, is clearly impossible. That is why Quality cannot be defined. If we do define it we are defining something less than Quality itself.Allow, for the moment, these two citations to stand as abbreviations for a more complete argument. (I grant that Pirsig is leaving out some steps, or I am in citing just these two snippets.) What is significant in the present context is not simply that Pirsig and Pasternak are both claiming that they have an indefinable reality on their hands (or rather, we do on ours). The similarity is closer, and it depends upon, of all people, Aristotle, for whom Pirsig has almost nothing good to say (and he is frank about his partisanship.) Both Quality and Relation are, in Aristotle's terms in the Categories, "accidents." Well, yes, you'll say, but then anything in Aristotle that isn't a substance is an accident. Yes, but there is a symmetry, or rather, a polarity, between these two categories, since Quality is normally taken to be, as it were, the "strongest" accident (Quality contains four inherent species -- habit, potency, passive quality, shape and figure), and Relation, the "weakest," the most contingent. They are also, arguably, the two that have been historically found most problematic. Aristotle provides no argument for why he places the four aforementioned species under Quality, and exegetes do not agree on a rationale or even on whether he had one. (This subsection of the entry at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a good start on the difficulties.) As to Relation, Aristotle himself recognized that it posed problems. Whereas earlier in the Categories when he discusses Relation he says,
Those things are called relative which, either being said to be of something else or to be related to something else, are explained by reference to that other thing (Categories 6a),he later acknowledges that this account needs modification. After all, Aristotle's account is usually glossed as a "substance/accident"ontology; there are substances, and there are the accidents that adhere to them. This is an over-simplification, but the details do not seriously affect the point that since any Relation is an accident, it clearly should not apply to Substance. But, Aristotle goes on to note,
If our definition of the relative was complete, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to prove that no substance is relative. ...[But] only those things are properly called relative in the case of which relation to an external object is a necessary condition of existence.... The former definition indeed applies to all relatives; but the fact that a thing is explained with reference to something else does not make it essentially relative. (Ibid, 8a)The difficulty arises because all the categories are "relative" in a certain important sense. After all, to "explain" anything is to explain it in terms of something else. But there are, on the other hand, some things that are inherently related. "Daughter," for instance, is always daughter-of- ; the relation in this case is not just part of the explanation, but (we might say) part of the grammar of the thing to be explained.
This distinction led to an elaboration in medieval scholasticism, a distinction between Relatio secundum dici, "following [the manner of] speaking", and "Categorical" relation, Relatio secundum esse, "following essence". "Daughter," the example above, is an instance of the latter. The sharp-eyed will have spotted a certain isomophism with another scholastic notion, for just as daughter is always daughter-of- , so too in the classic account of intentionality, transplanted by Brentano into modern phenomenology, any state of apprehending always has just such an -of- structure; imagination is imagination-of- , fear is fear-of- , hearing is hearning-of- , and so on.
My understanding of the connection between this phenomenological sense of intentionality and its medieval antecedent is strongly influenced by John Deely's work, especially Four Ages of Understanding and Intentionality and Semiotics. Deely argues strongly that Brentano's is a deformation of the medieval concept, but that is a detail for specialists. What is important in this context is the way intentionality involves a directedness, a towards-which- . (This is in fact very close to the Greek for Relation in Aristotle's Categories, where Relation is πρός τι.) I will come back to the scholastic notion of Relation later, in connection with Deely's exposition of the great late-medieval thinker John Poinsot, also known as "John of St. Thomas" for his extremely scrupulous manner of following Aquinas.
Like "Relation," "Quality," too, has a certain ambiguity to it. It can be a term of valuation (as in Pirsig, generally), or a term of description (it need imply no value-judgment to say the apple has the quality of redness). We might write off this ambiguity as a lexicographic accident, but note that Pirsig in claiming that Quality stands before subject and object has already stepped back from the valuation-sense (with which he started). There is a certain incipient Platonism here -- a whisper of a Good beyond good and evil. Quality in the sense of characteristics -- and, note, these are what Locke will come to call "secondary qualities," in the sense revalorized by Meillasoux -- are also qualia, those things that philosophers like Dennett deny even exist. Qualia are simply the phenomena per se. And Pasternak, too, allows us to elide this distinction for our purposes, for she contends that phenomena are indefinable:
Indefinable Phenomenals are manifestations of indefinable Relations. Unknowns exposed by unknowns: we experience their manifestations but cannot account for their occurance. In a Kantian way we can attach to them a label only, the "As Such," which is a kind of hint (like the waving of a hand indicating direction) implying the impossibility of expressing them in existing language.Pasternak invokes Kant, but this is, let it be noted, a kind of reversed Kantianism, for what is here "indefinable" is not a mysterious noumenon receding at the wrong end of the telescope, but phenomena per se. And this is just what we should expect if we follow the aforementioned phenomenological account of intentionality.
The Kantian notion (which I've argued is also universalized in Harman's ontology) is actually a mutation of a medieval distinction between things (which exist whether or not we know) and objects (which are always objects of sensory or intellectual or imaginative apprehension). This distinction is mediated, in John Poinsot's metaphysics, by the sign; for things to become objects requires intentional states, but such intentional states are relational. The fallout of this, says Deely, is that Poinsot makes an
identification of signs with pure relations as such, [with which] medieval semiotics reaches its highest point of development....the sign as such, consisting in the relation between sign vehicle and object signified, is something suprasubjective and invisible to sense. Those "things" or perceived objects that we call signs—such as traffic lights, flags, and words—are not technically speaking signs but vehicles of signification. The actual signification itself consists in the relation between the vehicles and the knowability of their objective content. Similarly, those psychological states, such as images or concepts...are also not technically speaking signs but vehicles of signification. At this stage, a new definition of signs may be said to be implicit: a sign is that which any object presupposes. (Four Ages of Understanding, p 434)If we push these identities between Quality, Relation, and Sign very far, it should be clear, plenty of ramifications follow for Speculative Realism of either its relationalist or its object-oriented chapters; and even for the possibility of a revalorization of that much-maligned bugaboo, "Correlationism." There are, for instance, strong albeit inexact resonances between Pirsig's later work (in Lila, the (less-satisfying, in my opinion) sequel to ZAMM, in which he delineates four different levels of "static" Quality -- inorganic, biological, social, and intellectual) and Meillassoux's "four worlds" (matter, life, thought, and justice). Some fuller exploration of this would need, too, to tease out the relation between what Meillassoux means by a "meaningless sign," in his paper "Iteration, Reiteration, Repetition."
Deely's observation of the ongoing play of signification is not too far, weirdly enough, from something Derrida might have said, though Deely refers instead to the more staid founder of Pragmaticism:
The objects known, in their turn, become signs of one another as new relations among them are imagined or discovered. And so, in the end, the universe as a whole, in terms of medieval semiotic theory, comes to be "perfused with signs, if it is not composed exclusively of signs," exactly as Peirce later projected. (Deely, op cit)The citation of C.S. Peirce is from his "Issues of Pragmaticism":
the entire universe -- not merely the universe of existents, but all that wider universe, embracing the universe of existents as a part, the universe which we are all accustomed to refer to as "the truth" -- ...all this universe is perfused with signs, if it is not composed exclusively of signs. (in Collected Papers vols 5-6, p 302)This is a strange plural monism or monistic pluralism; but the details of what it might mean would depend, in part, on the way one understands meaning itself.
Monday, March 18, 2013
The Brief Blog Review this month is of John Latta's Isola di Rifiuti, one of the best blogs I know on modern and post-modern literature, particularly but not exclusively poetry, particularly but not exclusively in English. If that sentence reads like an over-qualifying whittling-down, you will be surprised. Latta has been at this blog since 2006, and currently posts something like every other day; there is plenty to be said about mostly English mostly poetry mostly from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. There's no denying that Isola is a blog for the already-interested, and it does not hold your hand. You have to jump into the deep end, and flounder about. You have to follow your nose -- the best way of finding out what's interesting anyway. It is, Oh gorgeous thing!, a blog with footnotes. You will encounter names you have not heard of before, certainly writers whose work you have never read, and this even if you have been reading for decades. Every time I read a post I learn something about the tangle of biography, history, and literature that informs the crowded shelves of the used book shops where I eke out some of my living and much of my self-education. Every. Single. Time. I had not known, for instance, and would probably not have guessed, that Ronald Johnson, second-generation Black Mountain poet, so esteemed Dame Edith Sitwell's self-introduction, "Some Notes on My Own Poetry" as a document on a par with his American forebears Zukofsky and Olson. Johnson, whose enormous poem ARK stands in the great line of mystery literature, the poem as sacred text, all these years after that stopped being cool, was once described by Guy Davenport as "America's most important poet," though as of this writing Wikipedia (which includes this snippet of information) lists the entry for Johnson as a "stub." When I decided to review a literary blog after two theological ones, Isola more or less elbowed its way to the front of a long list of favorites by chancing to devote its most recent post to Davenport, one of the last great universalists in criticism, willing to take on all comers, and author of Geography of the Imagination, possibly the best collection of criticism in the 20th century. (I have a short review here.) Latta quotes William Styron about the opinion of an editor regarding Davenport's early fiction -- "he had never seen so promising a talent wasted in such a dubious, avant-garde style" -- a verdict which, with some caveats, I can imagine pertaining to Davenport's criticism too, if only because his essays so elegantly decline to stick to the point. They are exercises in a continual meandering that delimits its apparent subject mainly by veering away from it and then asymptotically approaching again. Not unlike Isola di Rifiuti itself, a blog that reads like someone thinking out loud. Latta has been thinking aloud for seven years now, and doesn't seem to be slowing down. He isn't dropping names to impress you, so if you don't understand at first, don't be put off. He's just taking for granted that you care about poetry and want to not be talked down to. Go over there and wander.
Saturday, March 16, 2013
Brandon Watson at Siris has a short post where he points out for apparently the nth+1 time that Plato's account of knowledge is not one that describes it as "Justified True Belief." He points out that at the locus classicus, the Theatetus 201c-210b, Socrates does indeed consider a model of "knowledge" that could conceivably be considered a JTB analogue, but that Socrates expressly rejects it. This is by most reckonings a mature middle-to-later dialogue, and it reaches a conclusion every bit as "skeptical" as the early and supposedly faithfully "Socratic" ones like the Lysis or the Euthyphro:
"So, Theatetus, neither perception, nor true belief, nor the addition of an "account' to true belief, can be knowledge."Sometimes I think that Plato had no express "doctrines" at all. Rather, he had a host of negative qualifications carving out the space for where a true doctrine would be, plus the hope of cultivating the realization (the famous spark leaping from soul to soul in the Seventh Letter) that would make the negative invert into a positive.
Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Today is the tenth anniversary of the death of Fred Rogers, yes that Fred Rogers, and in my own devotions, it is a Holy Day.
I have been working on a post off-and-on for a year to note this day, and by an accident of the internet, some mistake of mine has intersected with the design flaws of Blogger, and the post is gone. Solid weeks of work. The kind of thing that reduces me to helpless, indignant, this-is-not-acceptable spluttering egotism in the face of the indifferent state of affairs. Well, what would Mister Rogers do?
Start over, of course.
And so. This is not the post I wrote before. I'm going to state the case baldly: Fred Rogers was, I frankly and un-ironically maintain, a Saint in the technical theological sense. (Christianity is the tradition I stand in, as it was Rogers', but feel free to substitute "Tzadik" or "Bodhisattva" or "Really really good person", and forgive me the inexactitude of these comparisons for now.) The main entry in the hagiography is a justly famous article by Tom Junod, first published in Esquire. (This is essential reading. If you haven't read it, go do that now.) I have little to add to it; all my impressions of Rogers come via his children's television show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, whose surreal and simple vision differs from that of nearly every other children's show in that it had no two-tiered audience strategy, no eye winking at the adults over the kids' heads. This (and Rogers' unobtrusive ahimsa) set it apart from Looney Tunes, from Disney, from Rocky & Bullwinkle, even from Sesame Street, whose mutations have proven it to be a bellwether of liberal culture. With Mister Rogers, you never graduated to the Oooh-I-get-the-joke level. He was entirely (and this was what made him so increasingly aberrant in the age of ironism) sincere, to use a word that is easily said and not easily attained. What you saw on television was, by all accounts, what you met if you shook his hand. He had no TV persona.
Anecdotes of his unassuming, ordinary, jaw-dropping goodness are plentiful. They are easy to yawn at if that's the way your jaw drops. Many of them are unverifiable. But, because of the aforementioned lack of persona, they're pretty much superfluous. They all exemplify one trait, over and over; Rogers was indefatigably interested in everything, and in particular in other people.
Rogers' lack of pretense went hand-in-hand with his mastery of pretending. Pretending, or "make-believe," was Rogers' general term of art for a certain joyful and indirect self-teaching. There was nothing undisciplined about it, and nothing manipulative. If you forget everything you know about Rogers' Neighborhood of Make-Believe, the surrealism of it will astound you. An enormous mantelpiece clock is inhabited by a gentle, young tiger-cub. In a "Museum-go-'round," which is exactly what it sounds like, lives a semi-curmudgeonly woman curator who may, in a fit of pique, use her magical boomerang to invert the whole world. Many inhabitants are named with puns: the neighborhood is ruled, from a powder-blue castle, by King Friday XIII; an ingenious rodent named Cornflake S. Pecially lives in a factory next door; an indeterminate distance off, in "Someplace Else," a donkey ("Hodey") lives in a windmill. We are closer to The Wind in the Willows or the Hundred-Acre Wood (think of Piglet's grandfather, Trespassers W., whose name adorns a broken sign in front of Piglet's house), than we are to Sesame Street or The Electric Company. Among the human beings who live here are a jack-of-all-trades, a chef, and the crush of my young life, "Lady" Betty Aberlin. What strikes you when you stop taking it for granted is how weird it all is -- but without that terrifying undertone that affects, say, Alice in Wonderland, or PeeWee's Playhouse. You get here on a mysterious trolley car (with whom characters regularly converse, easily comprehending its back-&-forth dance on the tracks and its whistles). You can make calls from a telephone booth which occasionally descends out of the sky and then re-ascends. When an extraterrestrial Purple Panda, visiting from vast distances, breaks one of the rules of his home-world by sitting in a rocking chair (!?), how do his fellow-aliens, the indistinguishable Paul and Pauline, point out his error? Why, by chanting: "Sixteen! Sixteen!" Which makes all the sense in the world, right?
All these characters are shown having the ordinary kinds of relationships that obtain between people usually get along and sometimes don't. They visit each other, surprise each other, get in arguments, work things out. They plan and execute long-term projects -- no less than thirteen full-scale short operas were put on by these characters, with episodes devoted to writing, planning, practicing, and performing them. (Rogers, who had a degree in music, composed them.) In short, the Neighborhood of Make-Believe is a consistent secondary world, and because it is richly imagined and coherent, it retains its pertinence to the world the child lives in, without ever becoming just a pedagogical annex to it.
This is important, because Rogers took very seriously his responsibility to children in a way almost unparalleled, without ever talking down to them and without trying, per impossible, to erase his adulthood. He was, after all, Mister Rogers, not "Fred." With this authority, he was able to assure children they could not go down the drain; with his childlike awe, on the other hand, he was able to see and absolutely respect the need for that assurance. This need arises in many other contexts, which can give the best-intentioned adults a deer-in-headlights stare. Rogers dealt with divorce, death, poverty, war, and disability, with the same calm and open gravity he brings to the going-down-the-drain conversation.
The world is not always a kind place. That's something all children learn for themselves, whether we want them to or not, but it's something they really need our help to understand.Rogers' way of helping is marked by his complete lack of condescension. I have spent many years working with children and teens, and I have seen many teachers. I can testify that this lack of condescension is the mark of a past master. Rogers attained it because he was unfailingly himself, and refused to be embarrassed into a false, teacherly front:
The best teacher in the world is somebody who loves what he or she does and just loves it in front of you,Not that I live up to it, but this pretty much sums up my pedagogy, with all due weight on understanding the word love.
This is where Rogers is usually caricatured, to say nothing of being blamed for fostering an "entitled" generation. As to blame, I can only pity those who argue this way, as if concern for children's self-esteem meant unhinging them from responsibility. But the caricature is worth dwelling on for a moment. "You are special," he would tell each person he encountered, young or old, for the first or the hundredth time. He ended each episode that way: "You always make my day a special day for me. You know how? By just your being you." If there was ever an easy target, this was it. The whole thing cried out to be mocked, and it was mocked. (Rogers could appreciate parody; he sought out Eddie Murphy to tell him he had laughed at Murphy's parody "Mr Robinson's Neighborhood" on Saturday Night Live.) "Special," people would roll their eyes. "And how is everyone 'special'?" Yes, yes, you are a unique snowflake. The easy flippancy of this argument is misplaced. Rogers, who had a degree in theology as well as in music, knew very well the paradoxes of particularity. The content of his show is unfailingly intelligent. One could recast this notion of specificity in language more intellectual or more technical, but not more sophisticated. It bears mention that Rogers in saying this to children was carrying on a tradition of sorts: his grandfather had told him this every day. This is not cant, not ideology, but practice. Rogers' doctrine of special-ness is the same as is found in Hopkins:
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:This poem of course goes on to invoke Christ, playing "in ten thousand places / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his," and Rogers certainly would have invoked Christ under certain circumstances. On his show, I think he did not so much as say the word "God," but a liturgist's precision informs everything (the music, the sneakers, the sweater, every time). For a look into Rogers' spirituality one must read the Junod article, or the briefer notice Junod wrote upon Rogers' death, or this essay by Margaret Mary Kimmel and Mark Collins, which includes a number of details from Rogers' early years. I call these entries in a "hagiography," and with a straight face, not because I think Rogers was without faults or because I want to create a myth of the perfect man, but simply because there's an obvious sense in which we need categories like "Saint" for certain people who vastly exceed -- to the point of provoking either our derision or our tears -- our sense of what good is humanly available. Hagiography has always attracted myths, and Rogers has his share. (He did not serve in the military, and his long sleeves covered no tattoos, no needle tracks.) Nearly all of the unverifiable anecdotes boil down to the same thing: Rogers gave people an experiential glimpse of their worth -- or, in Rogers' language, they felt special. It was not a passing emotional high; Rogers made people feel special because he regarded them as special, and this regard was not a mantra he repeated to himself but a practice he lived. He continued to be in touch for years with viewers who wrote fan letters, with reporters who found they had told him more about themselves than vice-versa, with people with whom he had chance encounters. You can see the powerful impression Rogers had on people unfold in real time if you watch his acceptance speech for a Lifetime Achievement Emmy Award. He says almost nothing, and what he says is not about him. Always calmly aware of the pernicious potential of television to alarm, overstimulate, or turn viewers into passive receptors, he quietly subverts the occasion of his award to call for ten pregnant seconds of broadcast silence -- and directs his listeners' attention to other people, people who will receive no award, whose name will not be televised, who will never have fame for any fraction of fifteen minutes, but by whose ordinary goodness have "loved us into being." It is a phrase as rife with philosophical import as any in the canon.
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
It may seem incongruous for a philosophy blog to have spent this much effort on the host of a children's television show. I hope that Rogers' pedagogy, his personalism, and his ingenious facility at navigating the border between worlds -- what he called pretending, what I would compare with metalepsis -- serves as some clarification for why I think Rogers germane. But the reasons go deeper. For, if philosophy means "love of wisdom" in any sense deeper than the merely etymological, it behooves philosophers to pay heed to an exemplar of wise love.
O God, who didst grant to thy servant Fredrick Rogers the vision of the unmatched worth of every soul, and made him a bearer of the knowledge of this love, grant us to know ourselves wholly precious in Thy sight, and to bear to each of Thy children witness of this joyful surety, by the grace of Thy Son Jesus Christ, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Spirit, now and forever, Amen.
Saturday, February 23, 2013
There is a story told about Wittgenstein, that one day someone remarked to him about the folly of those who had believed the sun went around the Earth. No doubt, Wittgenstein is said to have replied, they were certainly wrong. But what would it have looked like to them if they had been right?
The punchline is implicit, as is often the case with philosophy, which, as Wittgenstein said, ought not to wish to spare people the trouble of thinking for themselves.
I had a rather analogous moment the other day when someone asked me, What was it the ancients thought the world rested on? Wasn't it an elephant? Or a turtle or something? I responded with a reference to 1 Samuel 2:8, a locus classicus regarding the "pillars of the Earth." And what were the pillars "set" on, my inquirer wanted to know?
Those silly ancients!
So ask yourself about scale. Not what the earth stands on, but what is it made of? Duh, molecules! And Atoms! The periodic table of elements! Yes, yes, and the atoms? Despite the etymology, atoms turn out to be divisible into smaller things with, famously, "mostly empty space" between the smaller things. And, indeed, so on and so on. But not ad infinitum, at least not according to current scientific consensus. Indefinite divisibility would seem to leave us with a paradox, but so too does any really indivisible "atom," at least when you try to visualize it. Heisenberg recounted that a bad explanation in an elementary physics book in his youth depicted atoms "latching together" via hooks and eyes, in an analogy whose poor quality made him furious, since it was plain that if an atom could have a hook or an eye, it was not indivisible. In fact, the puzzle isn't about the atoms but about space. Imagine this tiny atom let's make it a sphere, indivisible. Imagine its surface. Imagine a dotted line on its surface demarcating its equator. Per hypothesis, the atom is not "made of" anything (it is indivisible and has no parts), but then what does the dotted line indicate? The puzzle of course means that the idea of space has broken down with the idea of the indivisible. And indeed, this is what happens even when we have surrendered the indivisible atom for the play of fields and forces in quantum mechanics, for, we are assured, at scales smaller than the Planck length, scale itself makes no sense to talk about. Let the performative contradiction here stand aside for the moment. the thing to notice is that in order for our usual explanations of "what things are made of" to work, we have to agree to come to a point where they don't work anymore.
But this is of course what was already at play with the pillars of the Earth, or indeed with the elephant or the turtles or the vast sea with the lotus floating on it and the world in the center, or the great tree Yggdrasil whose roots are gnawed by the Midgaard Serpent. We are imagining vast distances, far "below" or "beyond" our usual ken, and there is no reason to assume that our ordinary experiences are any guide to what we would find there if, per impossible, we were to climb down the trunk of the World Ash Tree or shimmy down onto the actual turtle's fluke.
It was absolutely understood that the terms "pillars," or "tree," or "elephant," was not what we usually meant by such terms, and yet in some manner analogous. Pushing that analogy into the literal in order to force a reductio, ("turtles all the way down" or whatnot) is like painting the dotted equator or putting a hook-and-eye mechanism on an atom. (This is not the same as saying the terms were "symbolic" as if there could be a literal, non-symbolic gloss.) By the time Archytas imagined standing at the edge of the universe and throwing a spear, we had come very far towards losing the sense of this analogical structure.
Monday, February 18, 2013
My brief review this month is of Father Stephen Freeman's Glory to God for All Things.
An expressly theological blog, Glory to God has I think never been cited by me here, even though it has been on my blogroll from the beginning. (My aim is to include in this series only blogs I don't usually refer to in posts. We'll see how well that goes.) Fr. Stephen is a priest in the Orthodox Church in America, and his writings are examples of the best of contemporary Orthodoxy. There are no punches pulled -- he will leave you with no doubt about where he stands on the state of modern Christianity -- but none of those switchblade-stab asides either, where the critique gets you when you aren't looking. Fr. Stephen can be equally dismissive about the blind side of his fellow Orthodox (e.g. here: "Contrary to modern Orthodox conspiracy theories, ecumenism was not invented in the Vatican. It was invented on the frontiers of 19th century America"). There is no nostalgia for Byzantium or the "Third Rome," and no rallies for social or political "agendas." The theme here, repeated through a thousand nuanced variations but constant and gentle, the only one that matters, is addressed to each human being: metanoia. Repentance. Conversion of heart.
Some of Fr. Stephen's posts are what I'd call long but not too long, but they are all extremely readable. He wears his learning lightly and yet is unmistakable. (I have learned a great deal from reading him, on a purely academic level.) For all that, however, he writes always personally; the voice speaking is one that knows the struggle it articulates. This is why, I find, his always-pastoral concerns never capsize his posts into mere therapy. Typical is his remark in what is, as I wrote, his latest post:
[When] my family and I were received into the Holy Orthodox faith.... I met the day of our reception with fear and trembling, more because of the naked prospect of encountering God than from any other existential angst. I’ve learned since then that the inner life can be exceedingly creative in its efforts to avoid God. I placed myself in an Orthodox arena and found that there is still plenty of room there to play hide and seek.I recommend this blog as the online place to start soaking in the atmosphere of Orthodoxy. You will have to do some soaking, because the language can be strange. ("The Holy Orthodox Faith"... who talks like that anymore?). Explanations are not usually given directly; it's a question of spending time (a lot of time) listening to the conversation to see how it works. Here one can listen, thankfully, without encountering the diatribes and infighting that beset too many Christian blogs. There are plenty of spots where you can eavesdrop on modern and "traditional" Catholics, Protestants liberal and evangelical, and old-world and new-world Orthodox all bickering. All of that provides us excuse after convenient excuse to look no further. ("See how they love each other!") Glory to God for All Things is not that. It articulates, without apology and without airs, a deep Christian faith steeped in two thousand years of practice. It is generous, guileless, and perennially relevant.
Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Not long after Duane Christensen, as it turned out, my father-in-law Steve died.
Steve had been wheelchair-bound for 13 years due to an extremely rare neurological condition (he had first begun to show symptoms twenty years ago; he was finally diagnosed last year). Despite the fact that his world slowly and inexorably shrank, so that his bike rides, his camping excursions with his family, his trips to the park, were all eventually taken away, Steve continued to show not just what is often euphemistically called a "good attitude," but a downright disarming interest in life, and especially the lives of the people around him.
This was partly just a default stance of his, but it was also a conscious practice, a cultivation of gratitude and engagement, which has taught me a great deal. He did not disguise the fact that his life held great frustrations. But in his late 20's, during a profound struggle with depression, Steve had intentionally adopted a position of thankfulness, in which complaint was at best a tool with passing relevance and at worst a distraction. It was a kind of joyful discipline.
As a grad student, Steve had studied mathematics under J. Richard Büchi, who made significant contributions to automata theory and category theory. During Steve's last months I tried to take advantage of his expertise about these topics, but many of the conversations seemed to drift from mathematics into anecdote, and I found myself more eager for the story than for the math. He told me, for instance, that while reading a paper by Hans Läuchli, he'd realized that "You had to read papers with a pencil in your hand;" sometimes a lemma might be stated without being demonstrated, but that the significance of the paper might depend upon some detail in the (implied but unstated) proof. This seemed an observation that pertained as well to reading philosophy or a novel -- not the note-taking per se, but the need to always read between the lines. At one point he offered a high-level characterization of category theory: "Set theory is concerned with mathematical objects. Category theory is concerned with functors, with arrows between objects." This is, of course, far too inexact to serve by itself as a two-sentence summary of category theory, but it brought into focus something about Steve: what appealed to him was not definition but connection. He was preoccupied with the human beings who were or had been in his life, whether from his childhood or the last time he had been in the hospital. His concern with relationship became clear in his way of telling stories, which as he grew older reminded me more and more of Herodotus -- frequently there were many implied transitions of the form of "that reminds me of...," in what seemingly threatened to be an infinite deferral of "the point of the story;" but when they came full circle, one realized that there had been an implicit wholeness to the shape of the chain of anecdotes from the beginning. The connections could be almost anything: the color of someone's hair, the age of two people at the time of some important event, the city where something had happened. His recollections of the 1971 Tarski Symposium in Berkeley, for instance, were not primarily about the topics discussed, but about the people -- the mathematician he'd been too shy to introduce himself to; his cousin once removed, a year and a half old at the time, who was then living in Berkeley and who he'd met. When I said to him that these narrative connections reminded me of functors in Category Theory, the mathematical relevance was doubtless strained, but Steve smiled and understood.
Another of Steve's great loves was music; he listened to the Metropolitan Opera every Saturday morning, and the Big Band Swing program on the local radio station Saturday night. Though not an especially observant Jew, toward the end of his life he made a point of singing the haggadah from his youth at our last family Passover. He went to chamber music series and the local Symphony, and I am very grateful for the memories of our trips to the yearly bluegrass festival. Once I asked him whether he thought his appreciation of mathematics and of music were related. "I've heard they're supposed to be," he smiled. But this wasn't the aspect that interested him. Although he'd studied Hindemith, and had a rich understanding of musical theory, his conversation about music made no attempt to wrench the ineffable into expression. Rather, he'd move on to music history: either his own (say, the fledgling soprano whose performance he'd been impressed by, whose career he'd followed, and who went on to sing at the Met), or an anecdote he knew about Clara Schumann or Jacqueline du Pré. I sometimes thought that his connections with these people were as real as those with people he knew.
The stories were always there, but they became more and more brief. Toward the end of his life, as he settled with the realization that he would die, Steve more and more often would lapse into silence, and his remarks were more like hints of a whole that had to be inferred. He was wrestling with the last and greatest occasion for depression, and doing it with an astounding dignity and vulnerability. More and more, the ineffable came to the fore, and stayed there. During my last conversation with Steve, a week before he died, I happened to mention something about regretting having fallen out of touch with old friends. I wish I knew how to reach them again, I said; I wanted to preserve my relationships. Steve was a good listener and rarely interrupted, but at this word Relationship he cut in and said, in a tone of gravity and wonder, "It's the secret of life."
Monday, January 28, 2013
Earlier this month, I learned that Duane Christensen has died.
I corresponded with Christensen for a number of years, mostly via a web list he moderated, through which I was also privileged to meet Ernest McClain and a number of other renegade scholars of the ancient world. It is a deep regret of mine that we did not meet in person. Christensen was the author of a number of books on Biblical theology, including a translation and close reading of the book of Nahum for the Anchor Bible, and a two-volume study of Deuteronomy for the World Biblical Commentary. He was a quietly brave and unceasingly hard-working scholar, pursuing a far-reaching research agenda that perceived the underlying architecture of both the Hebrew and the Christian canons as organized around deep structural principles. Many have seen a chiasmus-structure in scripture, but Christensen was bold enough to suspect that this structure was far reaching and pertinent on many different scales. He developed a analytic protocol that pursued things down to the level of the syllable and the letter. He was extremely sensitive to the fact that scripture was always intended to be sung in a liturgical context, and his readings of Biblical books were always conducted with an eye to the setting of worship where they would have been used. Taking seriously the detail of the Masoretes' work, Christensen contended that the text of scripture had been engineered according to numerical and prosodic principles to approximate a breath-taking precision, but his hypothesis did not collapse into the unscientific permutation-mongering of Bible-Codeism. (My favorite books of his are those where he lays out this thesis most broadly, The Unity of The Bible and The Explosion of the Canon.) Moreover, he was always ready to engage anyone who asked (as I did, often), Why? His answer was essentially that certain numerical values were treated as divine, and there was a powerful incentive to encode these as frequently, and on as many textual levels, as possible. And while he marshaled a great deal of evidence in the form of close reading (and counting) to demonstrate his contentions, his readings never did violence to the surface meanings of the text.
This contention of Christensen's often brought him into conflict with the Documentary Hypothesis, and he was not shy about regarding it as superfluous. Christensen felt that consideration of the Bible must begin with the text at hand, not with hypothetical reconstructions of D, J, E and P, and he was equally indifferent to imaginings of proto-Mark and -Matthew and of an imaginary document called "Q". I disagreed with him about some of this (more about the Old testament than the New), and we argued respectfully several times. This was in itself an index of his stature as a human being. His accomplishment and learning were tremendous, but he deigned to give respectful hearing to the objections of a guy who had small Greek and less Hebrew, who was more or less thinking out loud. This was my first impression of him, and it was confirmed over and over.
Christensen's scholarship was formidable, and so was his risk-taking. His methods seemed to some readers over-reaching. He often corresponded with researchers who were far from the mainstream of scholarship, and whose somewhat far-out work would raise eyebrows among more conservative academics. (To my mind, however, Christensen was largely working out implications of the work of his former teacher David Noel Freedman.) But it's more important to note that his scholarly work was of a piece with his pastoral concerns. For many years, up until his death, he and his wife were volunteers at San Quentin prison, where he offered both spiritual counsel and lessons in Hebrew and Biblical theology. My respect for him derived not from the fact that he did this work "as well as" his scholarship, but from the fact that his scholarship and his pastoral work were of a piece. He had an indifference to the usual distinctions between practical this-worldly concerns and the usually abstruse academic pursuits. This made him, in my estimation, an unsurpassed role model.
Requiescat in pace.
Friday, January 4, 2013
For a couple of years now I've thought I'd like to offer shout-outs of admiration to other blogs out there that might not be on people's radars. These are all in my (admittedly quite long) blog roll, off on the left side-bar there, but some are religious, some are political, some are philosophical, some are literary, some are random, and anyone could be excused for not noticing them. My hope is to do one of these hat-tips a month, just to make sure things keep moving along.
My first nod goes to James Chastek's excellent, understated, and long-lived blog Just Thomism. Those two words do pretty much give you the sense of what's going on over there, but you could easily guess from them that the blog is heavy on the footnotes or on the dogma. In fact, this is anything but a for-Catholics-only scene. Indeed, Just Thomism may be the least defensive and least apologetic Roman Catholic philosophy site I know of. It lacks the implicit smugness that often slips out between the lines of a blog addressed to an in-crowd; but it's also missing the shamefaced, shucks-I-know-ain't-it-terrible tone of the embarrassed believer-in-waiting. In the best Thomistic tradition, the blog is grounded in what we used to call the life of reason. And actually, there are long stretches when there's precious little that is specifically theological, although of course there's lot's about God.
Nor is Chastek's site for-initiates-only. You don't have to know Peter Lombard or Albert the Great or Suarez or whoever to understand, but that's because you find out just how accessible and lucid Thomism, and medieval thought in general, is when you pay attention. Chastek isn't doing an online seminar, he's just thinking aloud, informed by Aquinas and the Church fathers and a number of exceptional thinkers all down the centuries. When a passage from the Summa, or from Marechal, or etc., is relevant, he quotes it and makes clear how it pertains. That's it, and that's all you need. This is a great blessing in an era where familiarity with the era of Western thought between Augustine and Descartes is sorely lacking. The temptation to sneak in little judgmental remarks like that is very strong (see? I just did it myself), but the more there are of them, the more you stop wanting to read. One reason Chastek stands out in my mind is that he's thoroughly entitled to make them, and almost never does.
There are, however, many, many blog entries --maybe even most (and Chastek sometimes edges towards one a day)-- that don't overtly refer to any authoritative text at all. In short, it is grounded philosophy without being either slavish or self-congratulatory.
An example (and it really is just an example, I plucked it more or less at random):
No small part of Newton’s scientific success consisted in putting off the demands of science (that is, of knowing nature) – his last verdict on his Principia is that he will feign no hypotheses about what gravity is but will stick to describing its activity in mathematical terms. This is a subtle but dramatic reformulation of the claim running from Plato to Galileo that numbers and geometrical quantities themselves were at work in nature, for in admitting that his mathematical descriptions do not get within the phenomena he is describing, Newton is making mathematics an extrinsic to the physical world. Mathematics is seen as substituting for nature and is not to be mistaken with knowing what is really happening in it i.e. it is at best a prologue to science and not science itself.This is an entire post, somewhat on the short side, but it exhibits many of the virtues of Just Thomism; a compactness of insight, a provocative point made compellingly (at least enough to grab your attention), illustrations to give it traction, and a layer or two to reward thinking about it at length.
But I don't want to reduce Just Thomism to a box of mind candy (though the blog is attractively packaged in nice green and gold tones). Go over there and make it a regular stopping place. It will broaden your philosophical palate, nourish your mind, and brighten your smile.