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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15 Feb '14 06:11:04 AM

A sudden impulse, to reconnect with a missing person, led me to dig up some correspondence from a pen-pal from the previous decade, S., a disarming, unconventional stunner and peculiar intellect who I'd 'met' somewhere online, 'seen' around, gotten to exchanging missives with. (Migration and re-encounter are as much a part of internet life as any other, maybe more so, because the disappearances can be so abrupt, so total, the trails to follow non-existent.) And I dug up myself: in different caches of correspondence from different periods, I find me, or someone signing my name, talking about two different women. Ten years ago, E. (or 'C.', at the time—I must have switched conventions), who S. had read about me meeting and dating and loving and abruptly and callously dumping because S. had all along been reading the diary I was keeping then, had said (I recounted to S.) that the only reason I was able to make it as far as I did with her before dropping her was the massive self-delusion that had control of everything else in my life, that was the only reason I could hold such a constantly low opinion of myself. A while later, after one of those natural internet lulls or migrations or whatever it was (the traces are gone), seven years ago, near my birthday, I tell S. that I had received, from K., 'my old love, my most recent and worst and best love', who I hadn't seen in nearly a year, a birthday present, a ticket to a show that K. hoped I would meet her at, if I could bear it—because our split had been hard and slow and unbearable and unwanted, because we couldn't work out how to be what we each wanted from, to, each other, but she couldn't take it anymore and had to try to keep me in her life on some terms (and herself in mine, as she—with such graciousness and perceptiveness—always knew full well mattered just as much to me). So what I did, I tell S., was to agree to go, and then to talk to K., and get anxious and realize nothing had changed and so to back out.

Saying so, just that, to S. likely did little for me. I said at the time that it was just the kind of thing that underscored everything unhappy about my life, which is just what someone looking to actively maintain their own entanglement, enmirement, in an unwelcome mood would say—couldn't see how not to say despite what little it does. As with what I said about the self-delusion that E. faulted me for. Then, at least. Because even if I disclosed these intimacies to my remote, partial stranger, my correspondent S., to only nominal discharge of the burdensome emotions attached to them, or to little to no shift in my actual understanding of myself, I did disclose them—I articulated something. Looking back now on those relationships, I feel stupid. Emotionally stupid: possessed of feelings with little to say about them, little sense of whatever deep wells of articulacy they might harbor were I to know more about how I now am still those me's then, or how not, or how I now stand toward E. or K. or toward my memories of them, toward the places they have in my past, my heart, or literally what exactly it was I lived through, did, said, thought, felt, back then. Because I hardly know. Perhaps for good reason: a grief like K. had died, untouchable on pain of days of sadness and resurgent anxiety, seemingly at best ignored, left undisturbed in hopes that it would be forgotten, dissipate of itself, be displaced, filled; or a far more obscure shame at not even really knowing myself, knowing my own feelings with E., knowing how to feel, how to be a person who feels, who relates, connects. In a frame of mind, in a mood, a stage of life, like those, one weathers. Ducks. I weathered. Only sort of. Often I feel like I still am.

But whatever the me back then didn't get, or was not ready to get, by sharing with S. back then, she's given the me now something from all the way back there. I find that even a year earlier—so, about eight years ago—I had reached out to detail what was happening with K., to try to somehow describe what, then, I noted would be called a breakup except that we had not even gotten back together so as to break anything up (so this had been going on a while, reconciling and parting). Reading 'me' now, I'm struck by how articulate I was about the tenuous understanding I had of my situation. How articulate about perceptions, motives, interpretations, how situated in a history of a relationship and engaged with K.'s view of herself, with her own life and past. How private! (So that I am struck by my own capacity to know another person, however inaccurate it might end up proving on inspection, and so that I almost think it must be some sort of betrayal, to know another person that well and relate it in any way to a third, even though I was hardly indiscreet in doing so. Strange.) My own words are something more like a document to me now, though I see how I might use them, emotionally, to re-connect with that 'me' and simultaneously take advantage of his nearness to and my distance from what he felt, and knew.

14 Feb '14 04:29:55 PM

'The immediate occasion for writing this book was Max Horkheimer's fiftieth birthday, February 14th, 1945. The composition took place in a phase when, bowing to outward circumstances, we had to interrupt our work together. This book wishes to demonstrate gratitude and loyalty by refusing to acknowledge the interruption. It bears witness to a dialogue intérieur: there is not a motif in it that does not belong as much to Horkheimer as to him who found the time to formulate it.

The specific approach of Minima Moralia, the attempt to present aspects of our shared philosophy from the standpoint of subjective experience, necessitates that the parts do not altogether satisfy the demands of the philosophy of which they are nevertheless a part. The disconnected and non-binding character of the form, the renunciation of explicit theoretical cohesion, are meant as one expression of this. At the same time this ascesis should atone in some part for the injustice whereby one alone continued to perform the task that can only be accomplished by both, and that we do not forsake.'

14 Feb '14 04:21:31 PM

'… [but] you don't need me in the way in which I need you.'

14 Feb '14 01:34:52 AM

Mingus on Ornette's horn, or anyone on Cecil Taylor's piano, 'it doesn't matter what key he's playing in—he's got a percussional sound… it gets to you emotionally, like a drummer'—and yet, there's an actual drummer drummer, too. So what are you doing, hearing 'percussive' playing from non-drummers? Maybe, you hear another way to be jolted, struck; to get going. And you wouldn't have thought you could get that; not there.

13 Feb '14 10:33:18 PM

At times the rapidity and brevity of the Stellar Regions Coltrane's return to tranquil playing, just at the very tail end of an otherwise unrelentingly turbulent piece, seems not at all perfunctory, not just a pretty coda; it is an utterly composed—that is, calmed, settled—assertion that this playing and what preceded it are the same, derive from the same source. You are moved by an equilibrium you thought could only be restored through rest, through a long silence after such a racket, but which comes through playing just as intense, even if suddenly quieted.

13 Feb '14 09:05:17 PM

—What is Cecil Taylor even doing, you can't even tell, all these things just keep going, the musicians make music somehow.

13 Feb '14 08:49:43 PM

On sunless days, the inside air seems like an absence; when the room is filled with the sun, the whole outside world too is present.

13 Feb '14 08:09:36 AM

'I was playing clichés and trying to learn tunes that were hip, so I could play with the guys that played them. Earlier, when I had first heard Bird, I wanted to be identified with him… to be consumed by him. But underneath I really wanted to be myself. You can only play so much of another man.'

13 Feb '14 06:30:47 AM

When I entered graduate school, I had interests in Wittgenstein, in the philosophy of mathematics, in aesthetics, and somewhat scattered interests in continental philosophy, the twentieth-century kind that was considered incomprehensible garbage by the average member of my extremely analytic program. I had a selective familiarity with the history of my chosen discipline: I had cried at Socrates' speech at the end of the Apology but really did a half-ass job covering much else in my undergraduate ancient survey, and I managed to delay sitting through a Locke-to-Kant modern survey until after I had graduated, at which point I was knowing and aloof relative to the poor 'undergraduates' stuck taking the course because they had to, and a little too busy with 'real' work in my math master's to keep up with the booooring reading, though I picked up a fair amount from listening to my teacher (one of the most conscientious lecturers I ever had, always wrote an inspirational quote on the board in a corner soon surrounded by carefully chalkwritten details so extensive that he would show up ten or fifteen minutes beforehand just to get them up without wasting the students' time—and he was denied tenure), enough at least to get the intimidatingly gorgeous girl who asked me for help through her final paper or exam or whatever it was. Her, and her boyfriend, I came (slightly crestfallen) to suspect.

So there was that, a bit late and light, for early modern, and otherwise I managed, thanks to my program's relatively expansive curriculum, to satisfy my history requirements with that ancient course, and two, yes two, surveys of the history of twentieth-century philosophy, one analytic and one continental, the one an okay encounter with Frege and Russell and Ayer (ugh) and Quine taught by a highly competent but bored visitor (now tenured, but it took him eight years and six different visiting positions before he first landed at his destination), but bogged down by uncomprehending classmates for whom the instructor seemed to me over-obliging, going back to some problem or other with definite descriptions, or the morning star, or whatever, over and over again; and the other of which was a formative encounter with a bunch of things I later barely even remembered having read (Habermas, Derrida, Kristeva, the funny part from Anti-Oedipus about the solar anus), and one thing I imagined having read forever, Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment, to that point one of the most difficult things I had ever labored over outside a math class, but labor over which I did thanks to my (Marxian! I had never heard that one before) unassuming professor, who would stand at the chalkboard only under great duress and did everything he could to extract full and regular seminar-style participation from his surprisingly game, gratifyingly bright students.

So, I had Socrates—something something justice, knowing that you don't know, elenchus, ok, and maybe a touch of Aristotle—ok, categories, and a mean, somehow—and perhaps I had dwelled on Parmenides and thought Heraclitus sounded real cool; and I had a few tastes of Kant (that square of distinctions! the pedagogue's bit), and some loose impressions of say Locke (boring, and Capitalized), Hume (consigning to the flames cool, Hume boring), and the early analytics, and that was it (no Descartes, only a scrap of moral theory, Dewey and some papers and essays for aesthetics, no Nietzsche, no Hegel, no Kierkegaard, no Heidegger, no nothing). Except for Wittgenstein (let's not even), and that arduously acquired but lasting encounter with Adorno (seriously, it took me a while before I appreciated that not just everyone thinks it's fairly prima facie plausible that an instrumental rationality born from the heart of Enlightenment reason has done whatever Adorno thinks it has done to everything he thinks it has done it to—and even later when I would return to Adorno almost purely for private edification, and then when asked by that same teacher whether I had read his Aesthetic Theory yet, I actually kept keeping it on my mental list, as something to do, something I still have yet to do, because have you looked at that thing)——and I think it goes without saying that Adorno and (especially!) Wittgenstein are not great spurs to engagement with the history of philosophy.

Yet I came, in time, to choose two historians as my advisors, to befriend a historian, to try to think of myself or at least style myself more as a historian of philosophy than as whatever else I might choose (for market purposes: always, detestably, for market purposes). Why?

Well, only gradually because they did history of philosophy. P. did ancient with a lifelong side interest in Wittgenstein, so as this and that converged over time, I eventually realized how much interest there was to be had in the nature of philosophy in the ancient period (naturally enough, duh). I had taken her course early but it was her attendance at my department's regular Wittgenstein reading group, and her willing availability as 'a Wittgenstein person' when I started wanting to work on Wittgenstein but needed some official sanction for it, and some honest teaching, that did it. (You can give P. a paper of which she barely gets through a single paragraph, without that devastating you much.) And later, once M. and I each realized the other was serious (that's very telling, how that works: 'he's serious' as a prelude to friendship in philosophy), through many long and rewarding conversations with him, I became more and more personally invested in ancient philosophy and so more directly involved again in those unofficial occasions for teaching and learning about it with P. (his advisor).

And L., our modern historian, I actually took a course from somewhat late; but I worked as his assistant repeatedly and got to like his manner (which to every student's first encounter with him seems so unbearably patient, methodical, slowwwwww), and somehow he got to know enough of me anyway to invite me to a little standing group he had been running for several years, in which students spread across the years would share their work. Although, by the time I took L.'s course, I didn't need to be convinced that the history of philosophy was important, I still didn't have so much of an interest, or grounding, in modern that I took to it well, and that I was able to make much headway on my chosen project, a literary-philosophical/spiritual-exercises reading of Descartes, which foundered and later turned into a spiritual-exercises reading of Schopenhauer. But he was my advisor anyway because he could take my questions seriously without their necessarily being his, although I felt like he had, like P., both a basic intellectual integrity and attractiveness as a person, and, I gathered, some pretty deep humility about (not knowing) what philosophy was supposed to be, that I figured fit well with my project.

So, associating with teachers and friends helped. And I spent an otherwise nearly fruitless year reading Being and Time even when I needn't have done so, and later, found some spontaneous interest of my own in World as Will and Representation while auditing a seminar just for a chance at reading some Schopenhauer, or some history of philosophy (not all that frequently on offer in my program). And otherwise came to think that, generally, that was where the action was: that I would much rather come to terms with all the classic texts in the history of philosophy than, say, read a new book about propositional attitudes. For a long time, a big part of my interest was strategic. I noticed that different figures in the history of philosophy, often somewhat marginal in their own right (though most often so according to the narrowness of my 'tradition'), had a lot of affinities with the Wittgenstein that I liked: say, anti-theoretical, or concerned with self-knowledge, or unworried about employing literary form for philosophical ends, or just associated with 'the right people'. And I had fond thoughts of a kind of counter-canon in which these people could go together, I think with the idea that there was strength (and less chance of seeming odd) in numbers, because by that point I was having trouble finding ways not to see 'being a Wittgenstein person' as pretty untenable, not mainly professionally, but philosophically: as Mulhall relates of his discouragement with philosophy before finding Cavell's work, I didn't see a great future in 'doing Wittgenstein' on something on which it had not yet been done, and trust me when I say that if you find it fruitless when Wittgenstein scholars insert themselves into your conversations and question the very starting points of everything they claim you breezed past, you are gonna love getting together with Wittgenstein scholars to talk about what is really Wittgensteinian and what Wittgenstein really meant (or rather, 'what he was trying to do'). Love love it!

In any case, I cobbled together a genuine interest in the history of philosophy in what I would not be surprised to find is the usual way, haphazardly, with all kinds of extrinsic concerns and agendas and attractions pulling and pushing me along. But in time, I think (if this isn't just self-serving and retrospectively imposed on my experiences), it's also helped me to serve, if not meet, a genuine need.

I can't remember how many times I had this conversation in graduate school: some topic comes up. Participants air views, parry thrusts, work their routines. Josh intercedes, tries to be 'Wittgensteinian', ask the sorts of questions he has seen master philosophical raconteur J. undo people with so capably. Participants say 'but you have to…', 'but if you don't…', fall back on commonsensical necessities, scientistic lore, suspiciously thoughtless obeisances to the profession, retort: 'so you think we just shouldn't do philosophy at all?', entire conversation is sucked into existential, disciplinary quandary, participants have surprisingly lackadaisical things to say about the nature of their discipline, conversation breaks up, Josh leaves frustrated.

No one taught me about philosophical inquiry, at least not directly. I was exposed to examples of it, and to instances of explicit concern with it. But I think that the inquiry itself, the one we were supposed to be caught up in, becoming practitioners of, was left, almost all of the time, tacit: a matter of knowhow, to be acquired indirectly through question-and-answer, and through the production of papers in response to papers, containing views rejecting or modifying views. I think that, for the most part, aside from some truisms about reason and knowledge and understanding, the view of what philosophy consists in held by most of my peers and unlucky conversation partners was, effectively: 'coming up with arguments for views about things'. (About what? About the philosophical things that philosophy professors have views about.) Inquiry, as somehow importantly driving the production of these arguments for views, must have been felt to be there, to be part of the activity, and therefore to be denied (say, as important, as possible) on pain of rejection of philosophy, and vice versa—and vice versa.

Though I seem always to have cared about that, I didn't always see it: didn't always see that in my happy insistences that maybe there was no need of philosophical theorizing, of searching for certain kinds of explanations for this or that, I sounded like I was also rejecting the need for some kind of more basic questioning, the sort with a direction, with progress, that touches on other inquiries and other concerns and perhaps underpins them or encompasses or shapes or steers them, that generates further questions and has a kind of structure to it that can align with life in certain ways. Probably, many of the people I had these conversations with did not recognize what I hoped, that you could perfectly well have inquiry without having it their way. Or they did but thought I was naive.

Perhaps I can say that from conversations like those, I developed a need to understand, even to believe in, the possibility of philosophical inquiry. And it's a theme that runs through the points in the history of philosophy that have attracted me along the way as I developed my genuine interest in it: in the Meno, in (with a lot of resistance on my part) Descartes, in Kant (hanging the possibility of doing philosophy on that square of distinctions!), in Heidegger ('are we nowadays even perplexed at our inability to understand the expression "being"? Not at all.'), in Hume's discussion of skepticism in the Treatise, in Nietzsche's incredible belief that he could do philosophy in a new and necessary way by imitating the French moralists, in Montaigne's retirement to his tower, in (as I just noticed this month!) Adorno's reflections in Minima Moralia on the possibility of living the good life (i.e. philosophically) when life 'does not live', in Thoreau's quip about philosophy professors, in Hadot's attempt (or even Foucault's! Foucault's!) to recover a vision of lived philosophy out of the texts of the past—it comes to seem like the theme of the history of philosophy, much more so than who thought what could be known with which faculties and who disagreed with whom about what is made of what and what absolutely can't be made of what.

And it is, I guess, one of my themes. I care about the possibility of philosophical inquiry; about the value of philosophy for life (aka, about 'lived philosophy', a la Hadot); and about the nature of philosophical writing. To me, those cares go together. I have trouble believing in work, in philosophers, who can manage one without the others.