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 Aug '12 12:55:50 AM

'Let us consider the praying mantis, a formidable, voracious insect. These creatures have a nature fascinating to many people. Mating is part of their self-realization, but some males are eaten when performing the act of copulation. Is he happy; is he having pleasure? We don't know. Well done if he does!'

13 Aug '12 09:27:33 PM

'I asked him if he ever wished to write his thoughts. He said that he had read and written letters for those who could not, but he never tried to write thoughts, —no, he could not, he could not tell what to put first, it would kill him, and then there was spelling to be attended to at the same time!'

12 Aug '12 10:53:33 PM

Hollering and children go together.

If you don't holler much you will learn to when you have kids.

12 Aug '12 09:33:14 PM

Charitably, one might think of a speaker's attachment to his script, to the paper resting on the podium, in terms of a wish to let him put forth only his best thoughts.

But one might also think about unscripted conversation, real talking, in terms of our wish to hear his best thoughts, and not the best thoughts that someone or other came up with before appearing before us in the guise of the author of a paper.

12 Aug '12 09:26:33 PM

It is interesting to think about academic papers in light of these categories of 'what was thought', of subjectivated discourse, of thoughts made not just one's own but made into oneself so as to be always at hand. Personally, I don't know that I've ever written anything—certainly not anything long—to which I would not rather be able to refer to from time to time in order to refresh my memory as to what exactly it is I'm saying, or thinking. Or: what exactly it is I said, or thought. There is little about my work so far that has not depended on complex or lengthy formulations, on the extended schematism of section-and-subsection, on particular expressions and choices of words which I can't always replicate in conversation. You can see the same sort of thing on display, regularly, when philosophers give talks or present at conferences. Their papers act as scripts, and they cling to them out of rigidity, or anxiety, or because seeking a kind of competitive advantage in performance. Debates, responses to criticism, can easily come to be miniature tangles of exegetical dispute. 'What I said was…', one retorts, citing one's own written words in order to reject a misreading of them. (Imagine two friends or two lovers having an argument this way! 'My position, as already stated in my initial document, was…'.) Or as a discussion unfolds in the wake of a paper's being read out, savvy observers will be able to notice when an author, in coming to really inhabit the role of speaker and take part in a conversation, has divorced himself from the literal author of the words written. With this kind of thing one hears reference to 'what the speaker really wants to say', and to his not knowing what exactly he thinks, because he is unable to consistently maintain one thing said and one explanation or justification for it, against the fixed standard of his own writing. Here the role of the writing in the larger scholarly or academic practice is a kind of progressive approximation to words that an author would never have to take back or amend or adjust. Or would not, for the most part, have to: so you hear authors say that they are still more or less satisfied with something they have written. Or that they don't think a criticism or a probing question has done so much as to make them give up, in the main, what they have written—which they suggest that perhaps you should reread. For me one of the most distasteful uses of writing is when it is cited in a kind of deflection of conversation. 'I already wrote about that. If you want to know what I think, just go read it.' In other words: I'm not going to go over that again; it's not worth my time to talk to you. Here are thoughts about which one could wonder: were they ever really made into oneself, made not just a part of the author but incorporated into the author's life? It seems as if, at best, a thinker's writings are adjunct to his life. Annexes. Storage sheds. To make this into an institutional fact would be to deny that thought could or need ever play a more personal role.

12 Aug '12 08:57:32 PM

It's an important part of Foucault's (and Hadot's) conception of hupomnemata as an instrument for spiritual exercise that the notes be recognized as a record of 'things read, heard, or thought'. This is not just for documentary purposes:

'These hupomnemata should not be thought of simply as a memory support, which might be consulted from time to time, as occasion arose; they are not meant to be substituted for a recollection that may fail. They constitute, rather, a material and a framework for exercises to be carried out frequently: reading, rereading, meditating, conversing with oneself and with others. And this was in order to have them, according to the expression that recurs often, prokheiron, ad manum, in promptu. "Near at hand," then, not just in the sense that one would be able to recall them to consciousness, but that one should be able to use them, whenever the need was felt, in action. It is a matter of constituting a logos bioethikos for oneself, an equipment of helpful discourses, capable—as Plutarch says—of elevating the voice and silencing the passions like a master who with one word hushes the growling of dogs. And for that they must not simply be placed in a sort of memory cabinet but lodged deeply in the soul, "planted in it," says Seneca, and they must form part of ourselves: in short, the soul must make them not merely its own but itself. The writing of the hupomnemata is an important relay in this subjectivation of discourse.'

Elsewhere Foucault is attentive to the interface between the writer and tradition or social practice that hupomnemata provide, so far as they are focused on 'things read' or 'things heard'—what he also refers to as 'the already-said'. Here he is just as interested in the past thoughts of the writer as a necessary element in the writer's 'training of the self by oneself'. The 'subjectivation of discourse' involves a kind of self-habituation, an inculcation of the habit of thinking with certain principles or in terms of certain elements of some discourse, about the events and occurrences of ordinary life. One's own body does a great deal of the work in retaining the trace of past exercise on the way to the development of a permanent habit, for example a habit of activity or consumption. Here the trace of past thought in a notebook helps the writer to re-activate some feeling, some mood, some way of perceiving so as to strengthen it; and to encourage some regularity or consistency in the habit to be formed, especially so far as it involves the shaping of oneself by principles which are still relatively alien, and thus to which (and to the rigor or consistency of which) one will naturally be resistant.

12 Aug '12 06:25:56 AM


What I can do - I will -
Though it be little as a Daffodil -
That I cannot - must be
Unknown to possibility -

12 Aug '12 12:28:58 AM

I might not ever have really appreciated just how un-Kantian Hadot can get. It would explain a lot of my uneasiness with him.

11 Aug '12 08:35:14 AM

When he responds posthumously to some of Foucault's writing on the care of the self in ancient philosophy (some of which mentions 'Spiritual Exercises'), Hadot's disagreement seems to focus on what each of them makes of the role of writing in the practices of the self recommended by ancient philosophers. I'm not sure he captures the spirit of Foucault's interest, which to me seems to be skeptical or suspicious of certain claims for the role of this writing, while being charitable enough to treat it as in fact a way of constituting oneself via a practice, i.e. by doing something.

Hadot specifically denies that 'writing constitutes the self'. He would rather talk of liberating oneself from one's individuality 'in order to raise oneself up to universality'. 'Writing, like the other spiritual exercises, changes the level of the self, and universalizes it. The miracle of this exercise, carried out in solitude, is that it allows its practitioner to accede to the universality of reason within the confines of space and time.'

There's an idea of reason operative here which is probably one of the many things Foucault maintains reservations about. Where Hadot wants to say that hypomnemata deal with 'the already said' 'because one recognizes in this "thing already said" – which usually consisted in the dogmas of the school's founding members – that which reason itself has to say to the present', in his essay 'Self Writing' Foucault takes the use of hypomnemata to be 'a matter of constituting oneself as a subject of rational action through the appropriation, the unification, and the subjectivation of a fragmentary and selected already-said'. Hadot treats the writer's recognition of what 'reason itself has to say' in the already-said on the terms preferred by the practitioners (or rather, the dogmas they subscribe to), as a capacity made possible or guaranteed (perhaps?) by 'reason itself', then interpreted metaphysically or ontologically as some best part of them, a fragment of cosmic logos, etc. Foucault does refer to 'rational action' in describing the use of hypomnemata but it seems obvious that he could remain uncommitted about what makes 'constituting oneself as a subject of rational action' possible via the outward practice of keeping a notebook to practice 'spiritual exercises' in accordance with some body of dogma. It could be that nothing more than this makes it possible. Where Hadot appeals immediately to the practitioner's reason as the means of recognition of the truth of what the practitioner writes in his notebook, Foucault's interpretation of the practice is more ambivalent: he insists that it involves 'subjectivation' of what is written by the practitioner. 'The essential requirement is that [a practitioner] be able to consider the selected sentence as a maxim that is true in what it asserts, suitable in what it prescribes, and useful in terms of one's circumstances.' The writer's judgment plays a part in the writing of the notebook, and thus in the notebook's role in constituting the writer's identity, which Foucault seems never to try to reduce or cancel or ground with reference to some permanent, extra-personal or intra-personal (or sub-personal?) principle (as Hadot does explicitly in his response: 'nature, or universal reason, as it is present within each individual', which Hadot nevertheless claims to count as identification with an "Other" thus permitting liberation from one's individuality).

Hadot treats this possibility as a miracle; Foucault treats it as a matter for investigation.

Though his responses on points of finer detail sound like they miss what Foucault is saying, Hadot does in the end make a clear affirmation of what probably separates him from Foucault here:

'I think modern man can practice the spiritual exercises of antiquity, at the same time separating them from the philosophical or mythic discourse which came along with them. The same spiritual exercise can, in fact, be justified by extremely diverse philosophical discourses. These latter are nothing but clumsy attempts, coming after the fact, to describe and justify inner experiences whose existential identity is not, in the last analysis, susceptible of any attempt at theorization or systematization.'

I've always felt a great deal of obscurity or indefiniteness—sketchiness—in any of the lists of activities or practices that Hadot habitually produces in order to explain his idea of spiritual exercises. Perhaps this has something to do with, on the one hand, something indistinct in his anthropology or in what a postwar post-analytic philosopher would call his theory of human action. In ways he seems pre-modern here, willing to talk of activities and powers and experiences and such without much by way of articulation. His emphasis on practices, on exercises, promises to serve as a ground for this talk. He just often prefers to rush on to link his efforts at grounding to the privileged terms of the school of dogma then under discussion. Perhaps Foucault could be seen here as more skeptical about there being this permanent possibility of practicing 'the spiritual exercises of antiquity' as if what they could consist of were independent of the discourses then used to justify them. On the other hand, Hadot appeals to experience (here, his next example is of attention to the present moment; earlier, he cites 'a new way of being-in-the-world, which consists in becoming aware of oneself as a part of nature, and a portion of universal reason'; one to connect to the 'oceanic feeling' he often talks about elsewhere). To make an appeal like this while simultaneously thinking—apparently—that the experiences appealed to are ultimately ineffable sounds like an independent but still confounding point in the issue of whether or not a modern understanding, or appropriation of, ancient spiritual exercises is possible.