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

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Non-specific wishlist

This is a modified form of a general letter I sent to a number of friends. I've received several responses already and decided to put this version here, casting my net a little wider. 

Some SCT readers have occasionally posed a question or three to me because I said something that seemed puzzling, or totally wrongheaded, or really wise possibly clever. This post is an express solicitation of a few (say, between one and three) questions -- of whatever length, depth, and detail you like -- to serve as starting-places for me. The aim here is to generate a document with something not unlike a medieval quodlibet or quaestio-responsio format -- a form that can, at its best, make a virtue of the asystematicity to which my thinking is prone in any case. 

In posting this I am aware of opening myself to questions from any number of positions; my aspiration is to generating some connections, or contrasts, between perspectives, and pressing myself towards a further degree of coherence, or else letting a thousand incoherences bloom. 

This latter point -- the embrace (or at least  acceptance) of a degree of a margin of irreducible "inconsistency" -- is, to a degree, at odds with the medieval model.  The great masters of quaestio-responsio, (say, Aquinas or Maximus the Confessor) are sometimes thought of as preeminently systematic thinkers. I suppose it depends on what one means by "systematic" -- I believe it was Ralph McInerny who remarked someplace that he could not understand why anyone would think this of Aquinas, and (if I am remembering rightly), that he considered it a giveaway that they had not really read St. Thomas.) Maximus clearly used the form to respond to questions arising in particular contexts, and seems never tried to arrange his thinking under general headings with anything like an "outline" structure; his Ambiguae can read like a miscellany, unless you are trying to go deep enough to fathom what kind of mind just comes up with responses like these. I suppose that to forestall misunderstandings -- but feel free to ask about this, too -- I should mention that I do not think of myself as adopting precisely the same approaches as the Byzantines or Scholastics, let alone of comparing myself with such thinkers as Maximus or Thomas by any criteria except aspiring to know and love truth -- or at least, aspiring to so aspire (and, at the right moment, to let go of aspiration altogether). My project is a different application of a similar form -- the final document may more resemble a hybrid of interview, epistolary exchange, open comment thread, and dissertation defense. We will see. 

Readers are invited to use whatever approach you like with question(s). Regard it as providing a writing prompt for a friend, or as a philosophical Ask-Me-Anything; if you've been reading me a while (but there's no requirement that this be so), you may put the hard question you think I'm always avoiding, or ask me AGAIN to please, for real this time, address your real arguments; or you could just pose something that you've been thinking about on your own if you are wanting to get a different perspective on it. Ask about something that's always puzzled (or bothered!) you about SCT, or share something about yourself, or challenge me to think about some(body's) other point of view or experience. Go deep or shallow, political or metaphysical, historical or contemporary, prosaic or poetical, as biographical or as abstract as you like; pull your punches or try to knock my teeth out; or just muse.

You may send me responses directly (the email address is indicated in the sidebar up at the top, under "About Me") or in the comments. Some of these responses will be excerpted on SCT during the coming year; others will only be included in the complete document. I'll group or string issues, and perhaps combine questions, as they seem to me to be linked, possibly thematically, possibly by questioner, possibly via some other criteria -- there will be poetic license involved, and I will not use anyone's name. Naturally, I do not promise to please anyone with my answers -- you may be left unsatisfied, or irritated -- but (barring the unlikely case of being overwhelmed by responses) I will try to respond to every serious question in the project.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

"Teach us to care and not to care" *

A recurring festival of great solemnity is once more observed. As I remarked last time we went through this, the main result of the election of 2016 was the dramatic increase in intensity in fervor and consensus regarding the alleged significance of elections. And surely now is the moment that confirms this popular piety in every respect!  From every corner of the land pour in reports of "record ballot returns," already exceeding the count of four years ago, "the highest turn-out since..."  That can't be a bad thing, can it? I mean, people care

But there is care and care, and my concern is that this turnout is far more symptom than cure. This is because our national case of DTs is itself -- DT is, himself -- a symptom. To be sure, a symptom can be fatal -- but it might also be a way to a sort of cure (a fever, for instance, could be either).  

In our case, "people care" means -- well, we've had four years of "caring," and I am open to persuasion that it's better than indifference, but it will take some persuading. People "care" in sports events and knife fights and network-sponsored mediated humanitarian crises; people have a certain detachment in watching even Antigone or King Lear, and quite a number of humanitarian crises have occasioned hardly a yawn. Neither fascination nor apathy per se are salutary or pernicious. (I work with young people, and I have had occasion to note that there is little that educators fear as much as they fear children's boredom; and as for engagement -- education and politics alike are repackaged as bread and circuses.)

No matter what transpires on (and in the aftermath of) Election Night USA 2020, the task before us as human beings remains the same: to be present, conscious, curious, kind. Does this entail voting? Does it entail for whom? 

By all means, vote -- I did -- if you answer Yes; if your conscience demands it; if you live in a "swing state;" if it makes you feel better. But do not put your faith in an "engaged citizenry," especially if you are a part of it, unless you know what is making them (and yourself) engaged, and in what spirit.  

* from T.S. Eliot, "Ash Wednesday," in case you were wondering.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

...the nth time as satire; the nth+1 time as...

First they came for the Klan, and of course I fucking cheered, because No I wasn't in the Klan, those guys were assholes. I shed zero tears for them. Then they came for the run-of-the-mill blue-collar Republicans in flyover country, good ol' boys mainly, and you know, evangelicals and country-music fans and snake handlers, and I didn't say anything because it really wasn't so bad what they did to them, they just made them the punchline in a lot of T.V., and most of flyover country was laughing too as far as I could tell from the coast, and besides I can't relate to those people at all. Then they came for the old guard, the establishment, and I didn't say anything because not only was I not in the old guard but I was pretty fucking frustrated by their men's-club too, and besides some of them were also creeps, and although it was mostly just entertainers and stuff, not real power, it seemed like we might be actually aiming at real class dynamics at least indirectly. Then they came for the white liberal educated classes, and I admit I started to wonder, but I didn't say much because really, people had been trying act like just voting Democrat and driving a hybrid was enough to make you a good person, which was pathetic. Then they came for the beleaguered leftists, and I was definitely uncomfortable but I didn't say anything because I was trying not to be noticed and of course it was also true that no matter how many rallies I'd attended or how much money I'd donated or whether I'd stopped voting out of protest or only ate dumpster-dived food or whatever, the world was still going to Hell in a handbasket, and sure -- maybe they will make it better, they can't make it worse, right? Then they came for the allies who'd fucked up in some way and damn straight I didn't say shit, well OK aside from the nervous joke about the circular firing squad, which I hoped would dispel the tension, but I quickly shut up, because they were serious, and I was still catching my breath as a beleaguered leftist who had somehow been missed, but I admit I felt bad for some of them, and others I thought, Well what the hell did they expect? And then they came for the nuts-and-bolts of it all, this was "structural change" this time, yes the police, but also teachers, and nurses, and researchers, and political analysts, and poets, and pretty much anyone who might be in some way perpetuating structural injustice, or causing harm, "harm" defined as, as, as what??? and I didn't say anything because you know it was moving really fast actually and half the time you thought well they're right about this, even if that seems a bit extreme, but by the time you got finished thinking this, somebody had already been fired from their job or was at least forcibly attending some kind of anti-something training; and besides the push-back from the other side was such that you really didn't want to be taken for, you know, an ally that fucked up, or one of the old guard,or a good old boy from flyover country, or the goddam Klan..... And all this time I kept thinking, too, Who's going to be next? And where will this end? And then I realized -- shit! Will they come for the people who say nothing, because "silence is violence," or for the people asking, Where will this end? Either way I've already said not enough, or too much --

-- but the truth is, no one knows, They don't even know, because it's not even the same They who is coming. The ones who came for the Klan? It's not them anymore, it hasn't been them for years. They didn't exactly come for them, they just quietly waited them out, long ago. And it's hard to shake the question: how much of what's left is the sneaky remainders of the Klan, the good ol' boys, the old guard, the white liberal educated class, the fucking-up allies, the beleaguered leftists -- or what if all that's left now, or will be soon, is just the pattern of coming-for?

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

please ask the New York Times to not risk ruining someone's life in exchange for five minutes' worth of "scoop"

I was deeply sorry and not a little alarmed to find Slate Star Codex entirely subtracted from the internet, with the exception of a post explaining why, to wit: that the New York Times was planning on blowing Scott Alexander's cover by publishing his full name.

Scott has real and very non-trivial reasons for wanting this not to happen, some of which I sympathize with deeply and personally; some of which I just think are obviously good reasons. He's a psychiatrist, and he doesn't want his patients to be able to look up his blog. He has enemies, and he doesn't want them looking up his name and address. Whatever the NYT thinks it has to gain in a little momentary journalistic frisson will be tremendously outweighed by the disastrous effects on Scott. I can't come up with any guess about what part of the public good they think is being damaged by Scott's pseudonymity, and I suspect they can't either. Scott, on the other hand, has a very good idea of what would be damaged by making him easily identifiable.

The delphic imperative is Know Thyself, not Make Thyself Known. I don't know that Scott thinks of himself as a philosopher, but his work -- exemplary in eschewing easy answers and asking for rationale and evidence while remaining in touch with human suffering -- is fraught with implications for those who do philosophy, and his blog's disappearance is a brutal blow to the overall intelligence quotient of the web. Seriously, the entire internet is several points more stupid with the deletion of SSC. If there is a kindness quotient, or a fairness quotient, or a sense-of-humor-in-the-face-of-grim-reality quotient the same is true of them. I have explained somewhat more about why I would think this elsewhere, before. Scott's fostering of an online community in which decency and capacity to listen to each other charitably across (substantive and deeply-felt) disagreement has not been perfect (otherwise there would be no enemies with whom he prefers to remain pseudonymous), but it has been amazing, and far more successful than, I'd conservatively say, 70-90% of the rest of social media.

Please go sign the petition asking the NYT to do the right thing.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

an argument for esotericism

Them: Go Red.
Other Them: No, Blue. Obviously.
Me: Well, there's a distinction to be made --
Other Them: What? What do you mean? 
Me: For example, Plato says -- if we read carefully --
Them: Red!
Other Them: See?!  Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty!
Me: And by liberty you mean --? 
Other Them: Why are you defending them?!
Me: I'm not, just --
Other Them: You're on their side!
Me: Forget it. Just forget I said anything.
Them: Heh, those Blue guys -- Am I right?!  Free speech!  
Me: Shut up. 
Other them:  I'm watching you.
Me: Yeah, you do that.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Prize and consolation

Just as, when I pay someone a visit, I don't just want to make him have feelings of such-and-such a sort; what I mainly want is to visit him, though of course I should like to be well-received too.
-- Wittgengetin, Culture & Value, p 58
My friend Kawingbird agreed with / objected to my last post, in which I hold that philosophy works by not-working, whereby
intense and difficult precision ... yields, at the right moment, to the graceful blur of letting-go, even if that means falling over backwards.
Quoth the Kawingbird:
No doubt this experience is one of the things philosophy does quite well and one of the things we love it for. But is it the *main thing* philosophy does? Is it *why* we engage in philosophical inquiry? I'll leave aside the first, more general question and answer the personal one for myself. No. I love this experience of "the perfect, broken unfinishable whole" emerging into view out of the inevitable (partial) failure of my inquiries. But it is the equally partial successes that keep me going....I want answers! Yes, every answer turns out to be another question. But that doesn't mean it's not also an answer. ...What you describe seems to be to be like the runner's endorphin rush, which gives us that beautiful and redemptive sense of connection to the ineffable, which makes even our failures and weaknesses look noble. A lovely compensation prize -- and probably necessary for weak and ignorant beings like us. But I still want to get to the top of that next fucking hill.
If we only wanted the endorphin rush, we could run on treadmills. Some do. Maybe Analytic Philosophy departments are the Gold's Gym of philosophy. In any case, most of us do actually want to go there, then there, and so on.  I do maintain that philosophy "works" by not-working, but I think it works. One cannot get even the consolation prize if one doesn't learn to try again, fail again, fail better. The non-success (or, better, the suspension of success) of philosophy cannot happen without the partial successes of which K speaks. 

As to which is the "main thing" philosophy does, and which the side-effect, I think one has to be willing or able to think two contradictory things at once. Supposedly it is "better to travel than to arrive," or so I have been told; but without a destination, no one in fact "travels." One of the few lessons I can actually point to having internalized from my days in Mormonism is the lesson that humility is a side-effect; it cannot be made into the primary goal without short-circuiting the whole process. And yet, there is something decisive about humility that really is the "goal" of ascesis. My wager is that philosophy works this way too.

I'll illustrate this via a philosopher for whom I take K to have a wary and diffident regard: Zizek. In Janet Malcolm's essay The Journalist and the Murderer, she writes:
Society mediates between the extremes of, on the one hand, intolerably strict morality and, on the other, dangerously anarchic permissiveness through an unspoken agreement whereby we are given leave to bend the rules of the strictest morality, provided we do so quietly and discreetly.  
If I had to summarize Zizek's essential point in his entire project -- his "one sentence," as Badiou / Canguilhem would say -- I would put it as a radicalization of Malcolm's account: the "unspoken agreement" does not function alongside the "strict" rules; the rules are a function of the unspoken agreement. Keep the law or "break" the law, if your concern is with the Law, you are not free. Zizek is a master at continually pointing out those ways in which what looks like "transgression" is a covertly-sanctioned way of performing "transgression." (This exegetical point, including the this-is-Zizek's-basic-core-contention claim, was made very convincingly -- albeit with some ramifications I don't concur with -- by Christian Thorne in a series of three essays on Zizek a few years ago.) This is why Zizek is frequently seen as an ambivalent figure for the Left; he's all for you having your fun, but he wants you to ask yourself where you are getting the idea of fun, and he's all too willing to point out that not just any "fun" is actually liberatory. 

Stage zero in this exegesis is just the terms of the "naive" argument: there is the law, there is breaking the law. Stage one would be: hold together both the law and the "breaking" of the law. The law works by being "broken."  Then the further step, stage two, would be to say: well, then: true freedom is to become indifferent to the law. Only then am I truly free of the Master. 

But if we risk the mockery of Kierkegaard (who spared no eye-rolling at those who tried to "go further"), we might dare ask, beyond Zizek: suppose we hold these two things together. If the real Law turns out to be the Law that always calculates with one hand what it forbids with the other, and "real" transgression, which is of course non-transgression because it is not concerned with whether it "transgresses," is just doing what you do without regard to the Law, is it possible to stand athwart this binary? If "transgression" can also point to a liberty beyond mere disobedience, so too perhaps the law, and even the capital-L "Law" of the Superego, might also point to a way beyond mere legal or moral rectitude -- to the Way, the Tao. Suppose, after all, that the law were not just some arbitrary, projected, Big Other's power trip.  Is it possible to actually keep the Law -- freely?

For a differently-balanced semi-analogy, take kawingbird's metaphor of the consolation-prize: this is a dynamic I observe frequently, watching middle-school basketball competitions, and the way this strange rite of passage continues to play out against the wider "conversation" of child-rearing practices, telling youth what "really matters", with the distant pantomime of professional sports projected on the screen of culture. One stance would have it: one plays to win. Another would have it: your only competition is with yourself; the most valuable prize is the one for "participation." Bah, says the first; hand out prizes for everyone and what is the point of a "prize"? And here begins the dialectic: there is a secret truth to this "Bah," which the giver of participation-prizes admits with guilty reluctance, because on some level we "all want to win;" but then, deeper still, the "what is the point of prizes?" question can be turned on the impatient "Bah"-er: Yes, what is the point? Are you so sure there is one? And then, the further question that turns around on this: but then, why hand out participation "prizes" at all? And beneath it all is the endless and unspoken question, what is the point of playing? What is a game?

My approach with regard to "problems" and "solutions" -- mechanistic or teleological nature, what commends or counts against democracy or aristocracy, whether "free will" is a mere façon de parler or a deep self-determination, whether one can coherently (claim to) think (of) "Nothing," and so on -- is analogous to this going-beyond. Like all analogies, these are imperfect, and my aim in jamming two analogies together here is precisely to highlight the slippage as well as the correspondence. In these analogies, the problem-and-answer dynamic is the Law, is "competition"; mere skepticism is transgression, is "everyone gets a prize"; and the dialectic unfolds from there. Philosophy has to hold together not only problems and solution, but problems and "unsolvable", and so on. But there is a moment in which one has to ask: if letting go of "solutions" is the "real" solution, can one let go of this, too? 

All of this can look, at a certain point, like so much hand-waving, which is why Kierkegaard had an easy target; it's what Timothy Morton likes to shrug off as "going meta-" -- a changing-the-subject maneuver, or worse, a kind of one-upmanship. There is an angle, or more than one, from which it just looks silly -- a slap-the-hand game, or children saying "to infinity no take-backs!" At this point the whole Rube Goldberg device stands revealed (and broken too) as, well, what a Rube Goldberg device is -- an apparatus of pointless detour; and one finds oneself still facing the ordinary tasks: how to cook the fish (don't overdo it). In moments like that, it can be hard to remember that something, after all, gave rise to the question in the first place. Where is the gap between that golden germ, the hiraṇyagarbha, and the flurry of confusion that was the dialectic eventually flowering into haywireity? 

It is absolutely not enough -- it can be exactly the wrong thing -- to "go meta." One must go meta at the right moment. Which may of course mean, not at all. Or rather, not yet, not yet, not yet... one step at a time... till you catch your breath and say, Wow, check out the view. The landscape will go meta on you all by itself.