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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14 Feb '15 06:54:04 PM

'Here in America there is no difference between a man and his economic fate. A man is made by his assets, income, position, and prospects. The economic mask coincides completely with a man's inner character. Everyone is worth what he earns and earns what he is worth. He learns what he is through the vicissitudes of his economic existence. He knows nothing else. The materialistic critique of society once objected against idealism that existence determined consciousness and not vice versa, and that the truth about society did not lie in its idealistic conception of itself but in its economy; contemporary men have rejected such idealism. They judge themselves by their own market value and learn what they are from what happens to them in the capitalistic economy. Their fate, however sad it may be, is not something outside them; they recognize its validity. A dying man in China might say, in a lowered voice:

Fortune did not smile upon me in this world.
Where am I going now? Up into the mountains
to seek peace for my lonely heart.

I am a failure, the American says—and that is that.'

14 Feb '15 06:48:43 AM

'Something has gone wrong in our collective idea of the "public."'

8 Feb '15 03:25:34 AM

'You'd have written them too. There's nothing secret about it.'

8 Feb '15 12:16:20 AM

'a sort of shorthand of emotional significances for later reference'

28 Jan '15 11:54:20 PM

'… a question of whether all these sensors, filters, profiles and algorithms can be used by citizens and communities for some kind of emancipation from bureaucracies and companies.'

23 Jan '15 08:01:22 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 09:52:34 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 04:35:08 PM

Draw me!

4 Jan '15 12:34:28 AM

'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.'