josh blog

Ordinary language is all right.

One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.

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23 Jan '15 12:01:22 PM

Scholarship: Vlastos says he had a year off at the Institute for Advanced Study to work on Plato, decided to work only on the Socratic dialogues, spent the year writing a perfectly fine book, looked at it, decided: 'the best thing I could do with that MS was to junk it'. So he did.

22 Jan '15 01:52:34 PM

'The crucial point in all such enquiries is to realize that the communication of knowledge is greatly affected by the form in which it is communicated. There is an obvious difference between reading an anthology of wise sayings from the classics and using a detailed edition of an author, together with a commentary. Such commentaries regularly included summaries, expositions, and interpretations by all the major commentators, who might include (for an author like Aristotle) Hellenistic Neoplatonists, Alexandrian philologists and allegorists, medieval Arabic philosophers translated into Latin, and a host of Renaissance scholars busy synthesizing all these traditions. (Bacon's ideas about the imagination, for instance, were probably shaped by the huge commentary tradition on Aristotle's De anima, supplemented by his own reading in the increasingly eclectic sixteenth-century sources.) This cumulative accretion process meant that all knowledge was simultaneously present, and that any quotation enjoyed the same status, in illustration or argument, as any other. This explains why Bacon can, in one paragraph, quote side by side Plato, Tacitus, the Bible, Machiavelli, and Montaigne. However incongruous these collocations might appear to us, for Bacon and his contemporaries they were all equally relevant, with the Bible obviously more authoritative in certain fields. But even the Bible was not treated solely as a source of religious belief and practice: Bacon cites it for apt material in politics, history, ethics, natural history, astronomy, and many other forms of knowledge…. For some modern readers the eclecticism of Renaissance writers, their pragmatic attitude toward quotations (ignoring huge differences in the original languages, the author's intentions, and the very different genres involved), is problematic. It is indeed a strange paradox that Renaissance scholars, who by their great skills in historical philology were the first people able to distinguish original Latin texts from later forgeries, and could give a reliable chronology of ancient history, in their actual writings simultaneously jumbled up all authors into one vast sea of quotations, to be used on any occasion, for any purpose.

The explanation of this strange contradiction, and one particularly relevant in Bacon's case, is the great importance Renaissance humanism attached to the notebook. From the first influential schoolmasters in fifteenth-century Italy, those pioneers who did so much to establish humanism as a discipline that could be taught in school (Vergerius, Guarino da Verona, Vittorino da Feltre), up to such polymaths as Erasmus, Vives, and Melanchthon in the sixteenth century, and onwards throughout Europe in the next two centuries, the notebook played a crucial role in the transmission of knowledge. All educationalists taught that reading was to be carried out with a pen in hand, ready to note in the margin metaphors, similes, exempla, sententiae, apophthegms, proverbs, or any other transportable units of literary composition. These were then to be copied out into one or more notebooks, divided either alphabetically or by topics, and to be reused in one's own writing. Although most attention was given to the establishing of notebooks during school years, many authorities emphasized that they were to be used throughout one's life. The Renaissance was fundamentally a notebook culture, its greatest literary productions displaying what has been called a stile a mosaico. Many passages in Montaigne or Rabelais, Bacon or Burton, Chapman or Webster, are tissues of quotations held together by a thin thread of argument. Modern readers must learn to see quotations as simultaneously foreign, the result of an individual author's reading, and yet as integral to the text, having been appropriated for and indeed by it. A whole theory of imitatio was developed, teaching how such material should be digested, integrated into the body or metabolism of the new work. Renaissance readers could certainly tell the difference between learning integrated and learning flaunted, or not properly understood.'

21 Jan '15 08:35:08 AM

Draw me!

3 Jan '15 04:34:28 PM

'Diogenes' conscious flouting of this principle of decency and consideration for others is connected with his pursuit of an ideal of individual self-sufficiency. There are, of course, in principle, at least three distinct ways of trying to attain self-sufficiency, first by reducing one's needs and desires so as to make them easily attainable by one's own efforts, and, second, by increasing one's powers. The third possibility is to combine both of these in some way. Diogenes adopted this third approach but gave pride of place within the synthesis to the first. The mere unvarnished advice, however, to try to reduce one's desires and needs is not really sufficiently determinate and informative to be a useful guide on how to live one's life. It is self-defeating to try to reduce one's desire for food below a certain minimal level, and how then do I know which of my desires and needs I should try to reduce and to what level? On this issue Diogenes is a rationalist. He believes that "right reason" (ὀρθὸς λόγος) will show us that some needs and desires are unavoidable, necessary, and imperative, like the basic human bodily needs that must be satisfied if human life is to be maintained. It makes no sense to try to get rid of these, although, of course, it might make good sense to consider in what way and to what extent some bodily needs, such as hunger, are to be satisfied. Diogenes calls these needs and desires that can be seen as rationally necessary "natural" (needs, desires, etc.). Such natural needs (and desires), he thought, were relatively easy to satisfy and were to be strictly distinguished from the needs and desires that arose by convention, that is, that are engendered in us by forces in human society. Hunger is a natural needs and can be satisfied with a wide variety of things that come to hand; the desire to dine off porcelain is conventional. Conventional or artificial needs are overwhelmingly those that we cannot easily satisfy by ourselves. If we then can learn to restrict ourselves to natural needs, we will end up with a budget of needs that is as close as we can get to one that will allow us to be self-sufficient. Precisely because artificial or conventional needs are not imposed on us by natural necessity, one might think, it should be relatively easy to rid ourselves of them, but Diogenes does not think that we can attain the ideal of self-sufficiency without effort or training (askesis). We can distinguish three parts to Diogenes' "askesis". First, Diogenes subjected himself to the usual training in bearing with the natural rigors and inconveniences of human life, that is, in controlling natural reactions to changes in the surrounding environment. Thus as humans we suffer from extremes of temperature, but with some practice, it is claimed, we can make ourselves less bothered by such external states of temperature. So Diogenes is reported to have practiced embracing statues in the winter to accustom himself to bearing the cold. Second, we can try to overcome socially inculcated, but merely conventional, reactions to possible ways of satisfying our natural needs. Thus man societies inculcate in their members an aversion to eating human flesh, even the flesh of healthy young people who die in accidents. Overcoming socially generated prejudices like these is, Diogenes thinks, an integral part of the philosopher's task. Third, and finally, there are socially generated needs strictly so called, like the need for a good reputation, that is, for the good opinion of one's fellows. One important way that one maintains the good opinion of others is precisely by observing the usual rules of decent behavior. These rules will be of the form that one "ought to be ashamed to… (e.g., eat human flesh, defecate in public)." In Diogenes' view, if human flesh is nourishing and easily available, I should, if I am trying to lead a good life, try to overcome my aversion to eating it, but if I am living in a society like those in which most of us have grown up, overcoming my own aversion will not be the end of the story. Even if I have no reaction of disgust or revulsion, others might have such a reaction. We often take this as a reason not to do certain things in public. Actually there might be two slightly different reasons: (a) decency demands that I not subject others to situations that will arouse their disgust—even if that disgust is based on a false view, such as that cannibalism is contrary to divine law, or, within limits, on a personal fastidiousness slightly more excessive than my own; and (b) prudence demands that I be concerned what others think of me, because if they hold me in contempt because of my personal habits or public behavior, they may not come to my aid in moments of need. The first of these is a demand to have a positive consideration for others, the second a demands that arises out of fear that I will fail to get assistance I might need. Diogenes rejects both of these reasons. Canons of decency are artificial and thus irrational, and the truly self-reliant person has no need of others, so the argument from prudence fails.

Self-sufficiency requires, then, both the "positive" development of my powers and at the same time the "negative" reduction of my needs to those that are "natural." Further it requires the elimination of all needs merely social in origin. Since the inculcation of a sense of shame, the uncomfortable feeling I have when I am seen, or imagine myself to be seen, to violate a principle of social decency is the main mechanism by which I become bound to the artificial needs that society generates in me, true self-sufficiency requires complete shamelessness. The model for the second, negative part of my task as an incipient philosopher is the dog, which ignores human social conventions and is completely free of any form of shame. From the dog (κύων) the followers of Diogenes acquired their name: Cynics. Complete shamelessness—learning to ignore others' negative reactions of disgust at one's appearance and behavior—is the only true road to the self-sufficiency that is the distinguishing characteristic of the good human life. The Cynics considered Herakles to be a kind of precursor and patron saint of their mode of life, because they saw him as the archetype of the self-sufficiency they sought. There are, however, two marked differences between Herakles and Diogenes. First, Herakles made no attempt to reduce his needs and desires. He was, on the contrary, notorious for his crude and unbridled passions, especially for his monstrous gluttony, and, given his great strength, he could easily afford to indulge himself. Second, Herakles was dependent on no one because of his great power, but, in the standard versions at any rate, his life was devoted to "Kulturarbeit" of an altruistic, even if not strictly political, kind. His characteristic "labor" is freeing a community from the scourge of a monster that ravages it, thereby conferring on the population a distinct communal benefit. The Cynics adopted the goal of self-sufficiency (αὐτάρκεια) without the altruism.'

3 Jan '15 03:56:30 PM

'By 1900, Habsburg power and authority had been transformed into a mere shell, or carapace, within which the Austrians, Hungarians and other nationalities lived their real lives and coped with their real problems, in ways that had lost all real organic connection with the Habsburg establishment. Politics as it was officially practiced was one thing; the practical solution of authentic social and political problems was something quite different, though convention demanded that the resulting solutions be presented in forms that respected the appearances of the Habsburg situation. If this meant that political discussion had to be carried on in a kind of double talk, so be it. The ability to dress up substantive discussions in formalistic fancy dress was no doubt one which the average mayor or provincial governor acquired without difficulty. Yet its very lack of any organic significance meant that the disappearance of the monarchy brought, for the most part, only a sense of relief that one was no longer compelled to pretend.

Given a society committed to ignoring this basic falsity, it is no wonder if "communication" became a problem, or if, over questions of morality, judgment and taste, men had difficulty in distinguishing appearance from realities. In this situation, the corruption of standards had gone so deep that the only effective response was an equally extreme Puritanism. So far as Kraus and the Krausians were concerned, direct political means were out. At the center, demands for political change had crystallized around nationalism, at the periphery around working-class aspirations, and neither of these was the kind of cause to which a man of Kraus's individual integrity could warm. There remained only two possible courses of action. One could stand on the sidelines and play the part of a Greek chorus, as Kraus did in Die Fackel, so that those of his contemporaries who had any standards of judgment left could see for themselves how language, social attitudes and cultural values alike had become debased in a society built upon artificialities and falsehoods. Alternatively, one could wash one's hands of communal affairs entirely. Society would go to hell in its own way. All the individual could do was try, like Wittgenstein, to live in his own high-minded way, maintaining and exemplifying in his life his own exacting standards of humanity, intellectual honesty, craftsmanship and personal integrity.'

3 Jan '15 03:30:03 PM

'… when the play metaphor was used in the drama as it so often was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it referred not only to the stage as it was seen but also to the centuries-old idea of the stage as a paradigm of human life, and of the artificial boundaries placed on feasible behaviour and on the actualities of social existence. Most people were aware of this and were accustomed to connect the theatre, in this literary, traditional sense, with a moral and critical view of humanity. When Jaques makes his well-known speech in As You Like It in which he elaborates the topos in order to emphasize the meaninglessness of life, he is both more and less than a player. Man and actor cancel each other out on a stage which represents the unreality of the world. This bleak demonstration of the way in which the metaphor really works is repeated by Macbeth and by Antonio in The Merchant of Venice:

I hold the world as but the world Gratiano—
A stage where every man must play a part,
And mine a sad one. (I, i)

But Shakespeare does not only use this metaphor to conjure up the idea of the theatre as a moral emblem. With the knowledge and insights of a player as well as a dramatist he is acutely aware of the fabricated nature of conduct both on and off the stage. Hamlet, who uses the players' performance as a means of manipulating events is shocked by the ability of a player to feel and express emotion: 'But in a fiction, in a dream of passion', in contrast with his own deficiency in feeling and enterprise for a real cause. His immediate decision to take action through the staging of a play, 'The Murder of Gonzago', suggests that he as much as the King has to see the scene acted before it becomes real—shockingly recognisable—to him.'

1 Jan '15 07:14:02 PM

And again.

1 Jan '15 10:29:22 AM

'… timelessness was a sham…'

1 Jan '15 09:55:08 AM

'There is little room in this corpus for outbursts of colloquial profanity.'