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

Friday, July 31, 2015

Ringing the changes

There is a Kabbalistic tradition of permuting the letters of the name of God. The practice looks a bit like mixing-and-matching Hebrew scrabble tiles from the outside, but to the Kabbalist, it is prayer and meditation. This meditation, arising at intersection between the aleatory and the intentional, is not just a sort of literomancy; it is a spiritual contemplation of the font from which both chance and purpose spring.

Diogenes Laertius reports of Plato's composition:
Euphorion and Panaitios relate that the beginning of the Republic was found revised and re-written several times.
This is a tradition also given by several others, notably Dionysius of Halicarnassus:
Plato did not cease, when eighty years old, to comb and curl his dialogues and reshape them in every way. Surely every scholar is acquainted with the stories of Plato's passion for taking pains, especially that of the tablet which they say was found after his death, with the beginning of the Republic ("I went down yesterday to the Piraeus together with Glaucon the son of Ariston") arranged in elaborately varying orders.
(On Literary Composition)
Why Plato would have kept permutating those eight Greek words is of course open to question, but it's notable that in this case the elements to be rearranged are not letters but words. In this connection, I will mention my own recent meditations on a small piece of Latin text. It's a Roman legal maxim cited, or possibly coined, by Cicero:
Exceptio probat regulam,
which is familiar to English speakers as "The exception proves the rule." This is as close to a three-word summary of the relation, and permeable boundary, between ontology and epistemology, as I can imagine. If you think on it while bearing in mind Badiou on the Event, for instance, it begins to take on a strong resonance. The phrase is moderately famous for having a kind of inherent ambiguity. "Prove," in English, gives the phrase at least three possible meanings:

1. The exception demonstrates [the existence of] the rule.

This is the sense in which it is used by Cicero, whose full maxim is actually Exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis, "The exception proves [that] the rule [exists] in cases not excepted."

2. The exception tests [the validity of] the rule.

This sense, which turns on a semi-archaic use of the word "prove," is sometimes mistake for the "real" meaning of the maxim. But there is also a third sense:

3. The exception turns out to be the rule.

This is what happened, for instance, when Einsteinian "anomalies" subsumed the Euclidean-Newtonian mechanics as a special case.

In a certain way, then, what happens with this third sense of the maxim is that the rule proves the exception; regula probat exceptionem. And once one sees this possibility, it dawns upon one that these three little words could unfold in six ways, with a number of senses per order:

Exceptio probat regulam

Regula probat exceptionem

Probatio regit exceptionem

Exceptio regit probationem

Probatio excipit regulam

Regula excipit probationem

I should mention that, when I double-checked with a classicist friend that any of these were admissible, he admonished me that, technically, yes, they all worked grammatically, but they all sounded like "vulgar Latin." (In a "whole sentence of educated Roman speech," he remarked, "the verb would probably be itching to go at the end, in third place.") Moreover, he warned, "the idea of fiddling around and permuting the words by using cognate forms belongs more to a medieval cloister than to an ancient court-room." Doubtless so, and I will stipulate that Cicero or the anonymous jurist he may be quoting would likely not have dreamed of my little fantasia of ringing the changes here. Nonetheless, meditate for a while on these, ask yourselves in what sense(s) any of them may hold, and the exercise begins to open up not just the various fields of philosophy as traditionally construed -- metaphysics, ethics, politics, epistemology, and so on -- but especially the tricky, transitional spaces between them. From Confucius to Kripke ("rule"), from Lucretius to Schmitt ("exception"), from Euclid to Plantinga ("proof"), philosophy has been itself this ringing-of-changes. Reducing it to a set of permutations does not, of itself, yield automatic insight, but one starts to wonder to what extent the questions really do come down to where one starts.