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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11 Feb '14 02:16:21 AM

Distinguishing between thematic, rhematic (i.e., designating their portion of text formally, as it were as an object, e.g. in the case of entire collections of each kind, 'Odes', 'Tales', 'Essays', 'Dialogues', etc.), and mixed intertitles (i.e. titles of parts of a text, like episodes or chapters or poems or whatever), Genette notes that 'thematic intertitles not preceded by rhematic indications of the "Chapter Number Thus-and-Such" type are in reality very rare in any period, perhaps because without such indications the narrative text could easily be taken for a collection of separate novellas' (Paratexts 298n4). That issue of reader uncertainty is connected in complicated ways to the kind of text the whole text is, and to its mode of discourse. Discussing cases of the absence of intertitles, Genette says:

'The intertitle is the title of a section of a book: in unitary texts, these sections may be parts, chapters, or paragraphs; in collections, they may be constituent poems, novellas, or essays. it follows, therefore, that a completely unitary text—that is, an undivided one—can contain no intertitle. To the best of my knowledge this is the case, for example, of most medieval epics, at least in the state in which they have come down to us, but it is also the case of some modern novels, such as Sollers' H and Paradis. It would be tempting to say the same of Ulysses, but as we know, its situation is a bit more subtle. Conversely, some texts are apparently too highly segmented—I mean chopped too fine—for each section to bear its own intertitle. This is the case for collections of fragments, aphorisms, thoughts, and other maxims when the author, like La Rochefoucauld, did not deem it necessary to group them—as La Bruyère would for his Caractères—into thematic subgroups forming chapters and warranting the assignment of an intertitle to each' (295).

Apparently, in narrative discourse which is not (formally) unitary but somehow segmented, a reader would be too likely to try to read a text with thematic intertitles, but lacking rhematic indications before each section, as somehow (narratively) dis-unified. So making its intertitles both thematic and rhematic is a way of helping the reader to read the book properly, avoiding unnecessary confusion (and work).

It's not clear how well Genette's remark about fragmentary (etc.) works being too segmented to bear thematic intertitles holds up, though. We know there are works like Wittgenstein's Investigations that readily invite coherent readings despite superficial fragmentation, presumably because of the care Wittgenstein took in arranging remarks. (In Strawson's early review he notes: 'Wittgenstein did not gloss his thoughts; but he arranged them'.) And even work like La Rochefoucauld's, at a further extreme of compression and clear lack of discursive continuity, with a preponderance of single-sentence remarks, apparently didn't enjoy the effects of extreme segmentation automatically, as a kind of consequence of form: Blackmore, Blackmore, and Giguère note in their OUP edition of the Maxims that he presents his views

'as a series of detached reflections, a "heap of diverse thoughts"… the truth and validity of which are to be weighed individually, without reference to any previously established line of argument or any system of philosophy—whether or not such a system may have originally generated them. And in practice this is how most of La Rochefoucauld's correspondents and other contemporary readers (such as Queen Christina) responded to them, accepting one maxim and rejecting another, without feeling that the book's items were logically interdependent and must stand or fall together. The 1664 'Note to the Reader' gave haste as the main reason for the lack of order, but in subsequent editions this argument was abandoned, and, far from seeking a more orderly presentation, La Rochefoucauld strove to heighten the appearance of discontinuity: maxims were progressively abridged, removing supportive arguments and leaving them more terse, more naked and exposed; sequences of maxims on similar topics were removed or disrupted' (Collected Maxims, pp. xxvii–xxviii).

—which at least suggests the possibility that titles could have been omitted not just out of formal necessity (at a level of segmentation that would not bear intertitles) but avoided so as to achieve particular effects.

What effects, exactly, is hard to say. But we know from Nietzsche's aphoristic works that intertitles (non-rhematic, or more than just rhematic—in all modern cases bare numbering seems to be supplied pretty universally as a matter of convenience, with little worry of falsely implying sequence or system) are possible. In every publication from Human, All Too Human I through The Gay Science—five books, counting the supplements to Human separately—Nietzsche titles every single aphorism (with Human the exception, with a few chapters ending with free continuations of a titled aphorism into subsequent, untitled sections to form miniature essays), with thematic grouping in Human (titled, and perhaps discursively arranged, chapters of aphorisms), and merely rhematic grouping (or not definitively and explicitly thematic, given some obvious patterns) in the others (numbered 'books' of aphorisms in Dawn and The Gay Science, save for the title of Book 4 of the latter, and the title of the later expansion by Book 5). That consistency is broken in later works, in which Nietzsche's intertitling practices get more complex (in interaction with different generic and rhetorical aims), but in those works even where one could have expected the most consistency with previous practice, titles are not given: most (but not all) of the sentence-long 'Epigrams and entr'actes' of Part 4 of Beyond Good and Evil are, like the rest of that book's numbered sections, not given titles although the titles of its higher-level parts seem newly intended to suggest a continuous argument and not just thematic groupings.

Perhaps that reinforces a suggestion of unity or continuity to those aphorisms, contra the formal implication of disunity which was reinforced by the deliberate intertitling of aphorisms in earlier works.

Again, to what effects? Although the uniform use of intertitles can certainly be used for rhetorical effects—Adorno's very Nietzschean Minima Moralia shows a fondness for ironic negation of commonplaces or other sorts of formulaic expressions in the titles of its essayistic aphorisms, which are often even revisited for emphasis in the aphorisms' conclusions—Nietzsche often seems content to identify the subject or broad point of an aphorism in its title, without necessarily using the opportunity to inflect it with his authorial point of view. That's not the whole story, because seemingly neutral titles often precede remarks which could, I guess, modulate the reader's attitude toward the subject under discussion, or directly imply that Nietzsche's attitude toward it is not a conventional one. But the thing about which this attitude is communicated is generally the same one conventionally referred to by the title phrase, and its manner of doing so is usually pretty direct.

Personally, I've never been a very good reader of Nietzsche's titles; I tend to ignore them when reading, and not to try to incorporate them into my readings when I get down to the work of interpretation. (One of my students was once very exercised by my neglect, because he always took care to try to figure out how the aphorism went with its title, and found some that weren't so obvious.) Perhaps that's out of a sense of redundancy, of a lack of functionality: they often just seem to duplicate the identification of an aphorism's subject that is already accomplished by the text of the aphorism, and which has to be grasped anyway if what the aphorism says about the subject is to be understood.

But that much is true of La Rochefoucauld's maxims as well, where the consistently extreme brevity might make it seem more as if titling would be utterly redundant. Imagine trying to title these maxims (V:30–36):

We are more able than willing; often we imagine that things are impossible because we want to excuse ourselves in our own eyes.

If we had no faults, we would not derive so much pleasure from noting those of other people.

Jealousy is sustained by doubt; and it either becomes a frenzy or comes to an end, as soon as we pass from doubt to certainty.

Pride always finds some compensation for everything; even when it relinquishes vanity, it does not lose anything.

If we had no pride, we would not complain of it in other people.

All men are equal in pride; the only difference is in the ways and means by which it is brought to light.

It seems that nature, which has so wisely arranged the organs of our body for our happiness, has also given us pride to spare us the pain of knowing our deficiencies.

Clearly a consistently thematic arrangement (which, remember, La Rouchefoucauld worked to disrupt) would deprive him of the opportunity to make a variety of transitions. But some level of thematic continuity lets him talk about indirectly about pride without saying 'pride', or lets him say unexpectedly different things about pride by deferring references to it (a very French-Classicist move, stylistically, I suppose). But at this level of compression, and without explicit (say, titled) thematic grouping, what choice of titles would there be? Redundant and distracting ones like 'Pride', obviously. Or more contentful ones which would amount to commentary on the maxims they titled, thus possibly (a) associating some view of the matter with the author, the one conventionally assigned ownership or responsibility for this paratextual material, or (b) obtruding a view assignable to the author in between the reader and a maxim carefully contrived to, let's say, corner the reader, per the 1664 'Note to the Reader': 'The reader's best policy is to start with the premiss that none of these maxims is directed specifically at him, and that he is the sole exception to them, even though they seem to be generally applicable. After that, I guarantee that he will be the first to subscribe to them'.

But if La Rochefoucauld's lack of titles effects a sort of transparency in remarks which are directed at the reader in a systematically ambiguous way, so that what the reader must think about is (what he thinks about) the subject, the phenomenon, in actuality (in his life and in the lives of others), perhaps what Nietzsche's relatively neutral titles do is to suggest the existence of these phenomena as objectifiable subjects, as potential matters for study, with some degree of detachment despite their (acknowledged) entanglement in our lives. This wouldn't just be a matter of objectivity about morality, in the face of prejudices declaring its examination as a phenomenon off-limits (a theme Nietzsche hits pretty regularly in this period). It's also a matter of scope, or method: Nietzsche wants to claim that even minor subjects can be philosophically revealing, particularly when studied 'psychologically' in an approach inspired by the French maximists. But that requires winning those subjects standing, getting them to count as phenomena worthy of reflection—say, by putting every single topic of discussion on the same level, through its appearance in the title of an aphorism. Nietzsche's titles become ways of making his subjects independent of what he happens in each case to say about them (so that, say, he can change his mind, or leave room for observations by others). When titles disappear in later works, or rather start to move around in order to serve more plainly argumentative functions, that seems to be because Nietzsche is newly interested in making arguments, in persuading and provoking, and in (risking, and negotiating, and avoiding) being identified with a point of view.

7 Feb '14 10:34:16 PM

'What can you gain by casting the conventional understanding aside, and what do you lose?'

7 Feb '14 08:37:12 PM

'That is teaching.'

Coffee this week with L., who is now retired but still spends too much of his time in reading groups, or in commenting on students' work, or even discharging collegial responsibilities the colleagues he left behind can't be bothered to do. We talked about 'human guise', and just that, the first philosophical conversation I've had in months, did more to help me clarify my own thinking than I would have been able to in hours, weeks, of working alone. That's L.'s way: he helps you by listening to you. Most teachers do, but they are too often so self-absorbed—especially when they think of themselves as researchers—that they lack the genuine patience required to let you say something, to wait for you to have something to say. They would rather you come to them, to talk about something they know quite well. L. solicits conversations with you, to talk about what you know, what you're working on, what you're having trouble with, even when it's not what he knows well. Rather: what he does know well, like how to listen, how to respond, how not to impose, how to intervene for the benefit of others, how to guide and advise, how to be an example—is more worth knowing, for a philosopher, than anything else.

7 Feb '14 06:51:11 AM

Disobedience & Miseducation

7 Feb '14 01:02:26 AM

A difference between contriving to use a metaphor, and using them freely.

7 Feb '14 12:22:23 AM

'[T]he concept of figurative meaning—Wittgenstein sometimes calls it secondary meaning—declares that investigation of this region cannot proceed always by employing language-games and the (a priori) agreement in judgment upon which they depend. Because with figurative meaning there is no such antecedent agreement. You could say that words used in such connections have no grammar—and that would itself be a grammatical remark.' —So, there is no antecedent agreement because, not only must we have learned the words used, but we must also have had certain experiences, noticed certain things, had certain impressions, felt greater pertinence in some things, heard emphases or discords where others may not have, and in general, must have found some sense in employing language on which there is elsewhere agreement, in such a way that there is not the same expectation that 'all' others can, as they stand, as those who share your language, understand you, will share your experience.

Without antecedent agreement, there's all the more pressure on the investigator to find words that express what he wants to, or has to. But if the figurative—a form of expression with its own life and own history in language which we can in certain ways recognize as such, even when it doesn't speak to us—does not a priori express our own experiences, it does provide a resource for doing so, on the condition that we experiment with speaking figuratively—which may sometimes require that we adapt non-figurative language, or established figures, to say what we have to say (with all the more risk, in that case, of not being understood); that we inflect our words.

Cavell's vision of Thoreau's 'father tongue' in The Senses of Walden seems to go beyond that, beyond the sense of possibly productive indeterminacy attaching to the figurative in The Claim of Reason. The speaker's relation to the language, its words independent of him, is more settled:

'Were it not for certain current fantasies according to which human beings in our time have such things to say to one another that they must invent something beyond the words we know in order to convey them, it would be unnecessary to emphasize that "father tongue" is not a new lexicon or syntax at our disposal, but precisely a rededication to the inescapable and utterly specific syllables upon which we are already disposed. Every word the writer uses will be written so as to acknowledge its own maturity, so as to let it speak for itself; and in a way that holds out its experience to us, allows us to experience it, and allows it to tell us all it knows. "There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning…" There are words with our name on them—that is to say, every word in our nomenclature—but their existence is only probable to us, because we are not in a position to bring them home.'

(The way in which this goes beyond the vision for language's role in the investigations in Claim of Reason is tied up in the importance Cavell attaches to the author of Walden's achievement as a 'writer'.)

In Senses this is said, crucially, to call for our rebirth. In Claim, though the idea is linked to the conversion philosophy is said to call for (it 'symbolizes' conversion, a turning of our natural reactions, p. 125), the role it is assigned in Cavell's re-interpretation of skepticism about others is far more tentative:

'If we can say that outside the study the knowledge of skepticism is dead for us, then we might say that one can live skepticism so long as its knowledge is dead for one. A dolorous intellectual diet. Yet to admit the dying of knowledge, as to endure the dying of love, as to succumb to the death of God and of poetry, may be all that fits one for rebirth' (p. 449).

('One suddenly becomes aware…')

6 Feb '14 06:01:49 PM

A philosopher's life is questions, not arguments. Or, questions before arguments, and arguments which only ever settle some questions, not all: better that they renew, focus, vitalize questioning.

4 Feb '14 11:41:53 PM

Zak Smith artist's notebook

4 Feb '14 01:30:43 AM

'… the inheritor of divisions, divisions which it in turn complicates and extends.'