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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18 Oct '17 07:27:03 AM

'We remain to some extent dependent on the institutions we have, the language we share with our contemporaries, and the common opinions that arise from living together in the way that we do. Montaigne is particularly sensitive to the role of language here; Pyrrho would have needed a new language to express his philosophy correctly, because our language is composed of 'affirmative propositions' (II.12). Montaigne makes no attempt to introduce a new technical vocabulary, but one can see him shifting the weight attributed to different concepts that were thought to be important. In reading the works of a thinker, even one who, like Montaigne, very definitely did not present himself as a systematic thinker, it is almost always useful to try to distinguish between what one might call the 'weight-bearing' concepts—the ones that are in constant and central use and play an important role in allowing the flow of thought to proceed—and other concepts that are merely decorative, rhetorical, or gestural, part of the established decor, historical reminiscence, colloquial façons de parler that are not to be taken too seriously, accepted pieties that have to be repeated for one (usually political or religious) reason or another, or window dressing. One of the most interesting aspects of Montaigne's thought is his replacement of the usual categories with a rather different set of concepts. 'Replacement' here does not mean that he breaks with and eschews the old concepts completely and intentionally invents, introduces, and adopts a new way of speaking; it means that a certain old vocabulary, and the concepts associated with it, just seem gradually to wane in importance, and he tends to prefer to use another set of terms, words that had been around before but had not been used with such insistence, but gradually come to be employed with greater frequency and more weight.

There is, then, an older approach—I'll call it the 'standard' approach simply to have a convenient way to refer to it—which focuses on a complex instrumentarium consisting of the interrelated concepts of 'opinion/belief', 'argument', 'observation', 'confirmation', 'justify', 'rational', 'science/knowledge', 'authority', and 'truth'. These are not just one more set of more or less optional concepts; they are concepts which older philosophers thought a serious person must stay focused on and use in discussion. The reason for this is that the main human task is to try to transform (mere) opinion into proper knowledge of the truth, to attain well-grounded self-knowledge, and to know how to act and live, and these are the terms which one must use to discharge any of these tasks. These terms and concepts are tightly bound to each other, even virtually defined in terms of each other: 'Knowledge is justified true belief' runs one commonly accepted formula. However, the 'self-knowledge' which we find in the Essais is not actually tightly connected with the other items in this complex (truth, argument, etc.). Rather it is located in a network of reflections centring around a completely different set of concepts: experience, judgment, practice, and a highly important one which I will refer to as 'getting on well with' or 'being on good terms with'. The French word is s'entendre. It isn't that Montaigne claims that there is no such thing as 'argument', 'rationality', or 'truth', or that the concepts we have of these phenomena are completely incorrect. Rather he thinks that they are both not as clear, authoritative, or powerful as they are often taken to be and not nearly as central and significant; he demotes them to the status of side issues, matters of secondary or tertiary importance. We do not need to analyse human life through the lens which this complex of concepts provides; there is another one which is equally good or better. Or rather, there is not necessarily one single, well-defined alternative to the standard instrumentarium, but in principle a wide variety of other conceptions that, in varying combinations, could give structure to life. So we do not have to worry too much about these standard concepts. Of course, it might be important to discuss 'justification', 'confirmation', and some of the others because they have infiltrated common speech, and, as such, it might be important to clear up some errors about them, but that is different from making them the centrepieces of a system or way of life.

The basic sense of s'entendre is 'pay attention to each other; listen to each other'. Then it comes to mean 'understand', and finally, 'be on good terms with; get on with'. 'J'aymerois mieux m'entendre bien en moy qu'en Cicero.' [I should prefer to be on good terms with myself and understand myself than to do so with Cicero (III.284).] To say that I get on with one of my friends or that I am 'on good terms with' them means neither that I can formulate true propositions about how they will act nor that we agree on everything—how boring if that were true. For Montaigne, friendship is a central model for a wide variety of human phenomena. My friends may surprise me, and often when I am able to predict how they will judge a situation or what they will do, I can't specify any reasons for this prediction that would stand up to scrutiny. To 'get on with' them implies also that I will be able to continue to live my life and manage my relations with them even when they change (as people do). It is also the case that one can get on with lots of people whose specific beliefs, both about the world and about how we should act in it, are radically different from one's own. Human collective life would be impossible if that were not so. This is why one should be careful in putting too much emphasis on the role of the dangerously ambiguous word 'consensus' in thinking about human society.'

12 Oct '17 11:00:32 PM

'... withdraw your selfe into your selfe; but first prepare your selfe to receive your selfe...'

4 Oct '17 03:25:08 PM

'There was the way out. There was the way to do it.'

4 Oct '17 07:54:05 AM

'… a literature that represented a form of survival…'

3 Oct '17 06:52:06 AM

'It feels like someone has opened a window into hell.'

20 Sep '17 06:18:54 AM

'The relation of the narrator to Julien—and of all Stendhalian narrators to the young protagonists of his novels—is patently paternalistic, a mixture of censure and indulgence; the narrator sets a standard of worldly wisdom that the protagonist must repeatedly violate, yet confesses to a secret admiration for the violation, especially for l'imprévu, the unforeseeable, the moments when Julien breaks with the very notion of model and pattern. The narrator constantly judges Julien in relation to his chosen models, measuring his distance from them, noting his failures to understand them, his false attributions of success to them, and the fictionality of the constructions he builds from them. As Victor Brombert has so well pointed out, the Stendhalian narrator typically uses hypothetical grammatical forms, asserting that if only Julien had understood such and such, he would have done so and so, with results different from those to which he condemns himself.'

15 Sep '17 07:43:50 AM

Barthes, the amateur mandarin

8 Sep '17 07:27:32 AM

'... It does not seem implausible to suggest that Kantian and utilitarian moralities are moralities for hard times, moralities for a world in which neighbors have become strangers...'

29 Aug '17 06:22:41 AM

'There are changes and no changes...'