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 '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.

13 Feb '14 03:44:17 AM

T. was reading a book, at a coffeeshop maybe, about Dostoevsky, and a guy, British accent I think, struck up a conversation in which he intimated—at least, maybe he just outright implied or said—that Dostoevsky was for pseudo-intellectuals. Pseudo-intellectuals! T. kept pronouncing that word, like a Seinfeld character or someone in a Woody Allen movie, we said it too, landing hard on the pseudo, like pseu?-do?, as if breaking apart the word and querying its syllables might uncover what kind of an asshole would think that was a good or OK thing to say to someone, even the word 'pseudo' much less the rest of it, especially since, I guess, he asked her out or she was thinking about it or something—because at least, he was otherwise charming or interesting, accent and all, and presumably if you're too good for Dostoevsky you must have some shit going on. I don't remember if we found out later whether his haughty overture was more from being British—lotta pseuds over there, something in the way they do school (over here, we might have phonies, but those are totally different)—or just his own bright idea of how to come off all dauntingly superior to a prospective date. But they did go out.

13 Feb '14 03:12:50 AM

In school, before there was an internet (at least, for me), I had a pen-pal. There might have been one from France, or somewhere Scandinavian, once, but the one I actually formed a pal-ship with was less distant: Des Moines. Presumably my class had been instructed to be pen-pals with this class of students a thirty-to-forty-minute drive away. 'Be', not 'become', I think: whatever instruction we were given about how to turn pals into friends didn't really extend beyond 'share some things about yourself'. As it turns out, that's not enough to make a friend: you and your pal need to take some interest in each other, which probably means, you have to find each other interesting. Which not everyone does. At that age, and more directed by my teachers to do this odd thing than I was led of my own accord to make something of it, I think I was probably just a pro forma pen-pal. And it probably didn't occur to me that finding friendship in a pen-pal might depend on trying—even on trying different pen-pals, 'meeting' different people, cultivating pal-ships. He was basically the one; then, I didn't have pen-pals.

As part of the activity, we visited our pen-pals as a class. It was probably awkward; I don't remember anything but lunch, which (from their cafeteria) was the most disgusting food I had ever had. So I remember barely anything about meeting my pen-pal, either. Mostly I remember his picture, either sent in a letter or taken that day: against a brick wall, a kid with dirty blond hair, braces, a shirt with black and white stripes. His name was Nils, I think. (But maybe I did also have a Scandinavian pen-pal?)

Of course, the early internet was like having, and meeting, lots of new pen-pals all of the sudden.

12 Feb '14 11:22:58 PM

'One wants to belong to the very simple people.'