Future, Present, & Past:

~~ 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.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Chromatic scale: thirteen theses and a comma

A fellow-blogger asks me for a presentation on "what I really think" (though not in those words). Am I being coy? Or obscure? Probably.

Here is a short inventory of my philosophical values, in the form of thirteen theses. On the surface some of them read like newage platitudes and some of them like wannabe Adorno. Will I go to the wall for every one? Sure... "appropriately interpreted." This means I reserve the right to qualify by commentary and caveat, or to swathe myself in gnomic silence as I choose.

[Addendum: I have re-arranged them to better structure the scale, and added the 'pythagorean comma.']

I. Practice over theory. But: Theory is a practice.

II. There are infinite openings between the banal and the extraordinary, between the prosaic and the sublime. Any moment, any question, opens onto all others; but each moment is irreducibly itself. (The continuum hypothesis.)

III. Dialogue over monologue. But: in dialogue, one finds one's voice, and more than one.

IV. To call the Spiritual either a mistake or a sublimation is a sublime mistake.

V. Questions over answers. But: to genuinely ask is to believe in the possibility of an answer.

VI. Every experience is either a turning towards Love, or away. Every encounter involves the risk of conversion or apostasy.

VII. If you have never felt the undertow of pure nihilism, you do not know what [you think] you're not missing.

VIII. There is no Science of Persons. There is Thou, but there is no Thou-ness.

IX. We make our way "from world to world" insofar as we learn to relate, to attend, to be interested, to like, to care; for every thing is a world, and the way between is The World.

X. To be alive is to be engaged with everything and attached to nothing. "Touch more; hold on less."

XI. One cannot prescribe the way to do this. Every spiritual technique works in part by not working.

XII. "Why is there anything?" --"We do not know. But it is good that there is." Philosophy can get this far (and this is very far).

XIII. Experience goes further.

(comma). Irony is a good spice, and a bad main course.


  1. I have gone over and over your list—simply because there’s so much to go over. I will attempt to have a real dialogue about all that, or some of it; it is really all of life and thus it may take a while. It is not my usual way of thinking, so I may stumble. Stumbling is good. I have stumbled into many good things. In fact, I think that is the only way I have found what good things I do know. In places unknown to me. Where life was going on without my knowing it. The truth is that I hardly understand what you are saying. But then I hardly understand anything. When it comes to scales I’m really quite chromatose. Anyway, a dialogue. I did read somewhere that Shakespeare didn’t really write dialogues, but staged monologues. I may end up with that. Oh my, I really don’t know what a dialogue is. I don’t think I have ever really been in one. They strike me as kind of scary. And article VII may mean that I am out. Sometimes I feel like maybe I’m an idiot for never having felt that undertow, nor religious doubt, nor even philosophical doubt; I only know devastating doubt in an attempt at romance.

    Along with all that, I think I really don’t know a Thou, but I do know thou-ness, if that’s possible. It’s kind of like a blind person knowing red. Again, a real Thou seems alluring, but also frightening. I do not doubt that he will end up wanting me to go away.

    And going from world to world, at this stage of my life, has come to seem impossible. The differences are not only unbridgeable but there is no open space there in which to build a bridge. Oh my, I feel myself coming off as a whiny pessimist. What to do?

    Therefore, to continue on with this pessimism, that engaging, touching and holding, likewise, seems to be a nice dream. Nothing more. I know only the Forms, not the everyday thing. Fortunately, I do have the Forms. I live in the world of Theoria, the seeing, and the pragma escapes me. But I do do the work of writing. But who reads it?

    My problem now is to try to convince you that I am not being ironic or nasty just for what pleasure I can get out of it. I have spoken the truth of myself. It seems that those in dialogue must trust each other in that. To be continued …

  2. Gary,

    I started writing this reply well before you posted your eloquent anticipation (which anyone seeing this ought to go read). And you've rightly intuited at least a couple of points I was going to make (you'll notice these)-- only I like how you put them better.

    As to I, III and V, it's true I arrange these pairs in hierarchies (Practice over theory, dialogue over monologue, etc) but I don't relegate, say, monologue to insignificance. As re. Shakespeare in particular, I think Bloom is right to say that he has his characters "overhear themselves" in monologue.

    As to the "Thou"-question. Leaving aside the cussed mediated-ness of online interaction, yes, and absolutely: this is a meeting. Even if you are a cunning computer program a la ELIZAdesigned to churn out pseudo-deep gibberish, I would still call it an encounter. As it is, I don't spend even a moment wondering if that weird scenario obtains; I experience your words on the screen as the offering of an Other Person.

    I waver back and forth between treating each one of these theses in a separate post, and never referring to them again. How pompous to offer a lot of commentary and scholia on my own words! Well, yes... and how pompous to have a blog at all, one could rejoin; if I was worried about seeming pompous, I might never do philosophy at all. I'll probably steer some middle course and wonder in retrospect where I have found a real synthesis and where I have merely compromised. (This is part of what I mean by 'practice').

    Re. your not understanding any of this... As I mentioned before, your own writing is also dense and a challenge to me. But we share a number of concerns and common references, even though we may (I suspect) differ in our conclusions. (I too am a fan of Gustav Bergman and of Roberto Calasso, to take two disparate examples to start).

  3. You write, "How pompous to offer a lot of commentary and scholia on my own words!" On the contrary! I think it's a marvelous idea. (Maybe not a lot, but for sure sharp.) Perhaps that would be real writing. Real philosophy.

  4. IX and XII are my favs! If maore people lived those 'values' this world would be a much better (and more interesting) place. Rock on B.