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 Jun '20 09:43:07 PM

'In France the political considerations of le grand siècle were hardly favorable to a systematic consideration of private or group interests in their relation to the public interest. Nevertheless, the career of the term intérêt resembled that of its English cousin. The idea of interest as it had been developed by the political literature since Machiavelli—the idea, that is, of a disciplined understanding of what it takes to advance one's power, influence, and wealth—came into common use early in the seventeenth century and was soon utilized by the great moralists and other writers of the period in their meticulous dissection of individual human nature. As the scene these writers were dealing with was typically the court of Louis XIV, the actors were "interested" in much the same categories as the sovereign himself: not only in wealth, but also and perhaps principally in power and influence. Hence interest was often used with a very inclusive meaning. Yet even then—and this is the point of convergence between the English and French histories—that meaning was being narrowed, by some process, to the pursuit of material, economic advantage. This can be inferred from the "Advice to the Reader" by which La Rochefoucauld prefaced the second edition (1666) of his Maximes:

By the word interest I understand not always an interest concerned with wealth (un intérêt de bien), but most frequently one that is concerned with honor or glory.

This warning against misunderstanding was the only point of real substance in a very short preface; clearly, for the average reader of the Maximes, the term "interest" had started to take on the more restricted sense of economic advantage.

Around the same time Jean de Silhon, Richelieu's secretary and apologist, also noted and deplored this evolution of meaning in a treatise in which he underlines the positive role played by interest in maintaining life and society. He lists a variety of interests—"Interest of conscience, Interest of honor, Interest of health, Interest of wealth, and several other Interests"—and then attributes the unfavorable connotation attaching to such expressions as un homme intéressé to the fact that "the name of Interest has remained attached exclusively, I do not know how (je ne sais comment), to the Interest of wealth (Intérêt du bien ou des richesses)."

How, in fact, can this drift be explained? Perhaps it was due to the old association of interest and moneylending; this meaning of interest antedates the one that is discussed here by several centuries. Possibly, too, the special affinity of rational calculation implicit in the concept of interest with the nature of economic activities accounts for these activities eventually monopolizing the contents of the concept. Returning to seventeenth-century France, one may also conjecture that, with power so concentrated and seemingly so stable at the time, economic interests constituted the only portion of an ordinary person's total aspirations in which important ups and downs could be visualized.

Actually Adam Smith stated the last point as a general proposition when discussing what he considered the overriding motive of man, namely, the "desire of bettering our condition":

An augmentation of fortune is the means by which the greater part of men propose and wish to better their condition. It is the means the most vulgar and the most obvious.…

Perhaps no other explanation is needed for the narrowing of the meaning of the term "interests" once the beginnings of economic growth made the "augmentation of fortune" a real possibility for an increasing number of people.

So much is clear now: when the interests of men came to be contrasted with their passions, this opposition could have quite different meanings depending on whether interests were understood in the wider or in the narrower sense. A maxim such as "Interest Will Not Lie" was originally an exhortation to pursue all of one's aspirations in an orderly and reasonable manner; it advocated the injection of an element of calculating efficiency, as well as of prudence, into human behavior whatever might be the passion by which it is basically motivated. But because of the just noted semantic drift of the term "interests," the opposition between interests and passions could also mean or convey a different thought, much more startling in view of traditional values: namely, that one set of passions, hitherto known variously as greed, avarice, or love of lucre, could be usefully employed to oppose and bridle such other passions as ambition, lust for power, or sexual lust.'

18 Jun '20 09:21:48 PM

'This was the time when writers and poets were also trying to discover or rediscover true values. Their quest led them towards nature and towards imagination, into the realm of make-believe or that of basic primordial reality. Surrealism, naturalism, existentialism, each in its way put the stress on social 'reality' endowing it with the inherent potentialities of reality. This critical exploration of a familiar, misunderstood reality—everyday life—was thus related to humanism, and its claim to rejuvenate the former liberal humanism or to replace it by a new revolutionary form owed something perhaps to the post-Liberation climate. The new humanism did not aspire to enlist rhetoric and ideology in the cause of a reform of superstructures (constitutions, State, government) but to 'alter existence'.

Certain observations made at the time have become, after twenty years, sociological and journalistic commonplaces. In 1946, as today, the discrepancies in everyday life from one social class to another resulted more from the type of income received (wages, salary, fees, unearned income) and the manner in which it was administered and distributed, than from its size. A high standard of rationality was attained by the middle classes where the head of the household, husband or father, held the purse strings; he gave the woman, wife or daughter, a household allowance and put aside the remainder in the form of savings; if he did not economize and save but chose to enjoy the present rather than invest in the future he went counter to his conscience, his family and society. A typical middle-class family saved and invested at the least possible risk for the best possible income; the good father founded the family fortune or increased it, and it was transmitted by legacy, even though experience had proved that middle-class fortunes were dispersed by the third generation and that the only way to avoid this was to raise one's financial standard. Consumption was the wife's province—and the importace of her function is still increasing—though in 1946 it was still relatively limited.

In those days the peasantry still practiced a natural or closed economy; their means were extremely restricted; administration was divided equally between the woman, who was in charge of the house and out-houses (garden, chicken-run, etc.) and the man who took care of the cultivation of the land. Savings were in kind—seeds, preserved fruit, etc.—and were usually squandered at festivals. As for the working classes, they led a hand-to-mouth existence having neither the possibility nor the inclination to save; the husband's pay was handed over to the wife, usually untouched, and she allotted a small sum to her mate for personal expenses, if he was a good husband and she a good housewife. Such women spent without bargaining, paying what was asked for reasons of pride as much as of humility. The labourers did not stint; they had inherited from their peasant ancestry a taste for good food, good wine and a certain degree of comfort; a taste that had been eradicated from the lower and middle classes.

Such is the sociological content of the Introduction à la critique de la vie quotidienne; but the book goes further, attempting to capture a panoramic view, rather than to dwell too much on minutiae and on purely practical distinctions between communities and classes.

The result is a sort of contrasting diptych, where the first panel represents the misery of everyday life, its tedious tasks, humiliations reflected in the lives of the working classes and especially of women, upon whom the conditions of everyday life bear heaviest—child-bearing and child-rearing, basic preoccupations with bare necessities, money, tradesmen, provisions, the realm of numbers, a sort of intimate knowledge of things outside the sphere of material reality: health, desire, spontaneity, vitality; recurrence, the survival of poetry and the endlessness of want, a climate of economy, abstinence, hardship, repressed desires, meanness and avarice. The second panel portrays the power of everyday life, its continuity, the permanence of life rooted in the soil, the adaptation of the body, time, space, desire; environment and the home; the unpredictable and unmeasurable tragedy forever lurking in everyday life; the power of woman, crushed and overwhelmed, 'object' of history and society but also the inevitable 'subject' and foundation; creation from recurrent gestures of a world of sensory experience; the coincidence of need with satisfaction and, more rarely, with pleasure; work and works of art; the ability to create in terms of everyday life from its solids and space—to make something lasting for the individual, the community, the class; the re-production of essential relations, the feed-back already mentioned between culture and productivity, understanding and ideologies, which is at the bottom of all the contradictions among these terms, the battlefield where wars are waged between the sexes, generations, communities, ideologies; the struggle between the adapted and the non-adapted, the shapelessness of subjective experience and the chaos of nature; mediations between these terms and their aftermath of emptiness, where antagonisms are bred that break out in the 'higher' spheres (institutions, superstructures).'

12 Jun '20 04:53:29 AM

'It's not about your music—it's about what makes your music your music.'

8 Jun '20 08:24:07 AM

'In fact, philosophers have proposed two different kinds of theories about how, in what circumstances, and why philosophy arises. What motivates people to ask philosophical questions, and what kinds of answers do they look for? The first line of approach, initiated by Plato, is that it is a positive theoretical response to amazement, surprise, admiration, or wonder at something that is seemingly incomprehensible but impressive. The second approach also has an origin in antiquity, but it is most closely associated with Hegel and various of his followers. This approach emphasises that philosophy is a reaction to negative aspects of our general experience of the world: to apparently irreconcilable practical conflict, severe suffering, real loss, experienced deprivation or weakness. I don’t start philosophising when the cherry tree blossoms in May but when the government demands that I do something I find deeply and unconscionably repugnant, when loved ones die in random violence, when I confront the radical failure of my plans or my own death, or when my society as a whole seems bent on visibly self-destructive action. In a situation like this, I either look for a reason to accept the failure and inadequacy as inevitable, and therefore something I must simply learn to bear, or I try to understand why what seems to be an experience of pain, frustration, and failure is (really) not any such thing. Then there might be a kind of division of labour in which philosophy provides the ‘reason’ for accepting failure, limitation, and deprivation, and religion, especially monotheistic religion, provides a compensatory and fantastic consolation.

There is in principle a third approach, historically a minority view common only among some followers of Hegel (including Marx and John Dewey), which emphasises not the unchanging nature of the universe and the world we live in—as an object of wonder or something we must learn to tolerate—but as an inherently humanly malleable domain and which construes philosophy as a way of seeking to change the world so as to make it more satisfactory.

One implication of adopting the second or the third approach is that in a fully satisfactory society, one in which even my death has become not a complete and unmitigated trauma but, say, a positively integrated culmination of life, philosophy would be superfluous and would thus not exist. Or perhaps it might survive as a bit of historical folklore or theatrical spectacle, like the ‘reenactments’ of battles from the English Civil Wars which certain small towns sponsor. This does not imply that in deeply unsatisfactory societies philosophy will inevitably arise or maintain itself. Its existence will also depend on any number of further factors. In particular, for philosophy to exist, deeply rooted dissatisfaction with the state of our world must be experienced by some people who are living a life in which their basic physical needs are satisfied, are capable of focusing developed intellectual and cognitive powers on their situation, and do not think the situation is so self-evidently hopeless that there is no point in thinking about it. So we cannot assume that as our world falls apart now in ecological catastrophe, there will necessarily be any renewal of philosophical activity.

Philosophy presupposes a certain minimum of optimism; it is a comic, not a tragic genre of writing.…'

21 May '20 06:22:23 AM

'… we can't consider sleep as the only anti-capitalist tactic available to us.'

12 May '20 11:28:43 PM

'Everything is getting reduced to the essential thing of being there and playing.'

2 May '20 10:08:44 PM

'… when I was playing in the local highlife band, they would come to watch, asking me, "What [are you] doing? What is that?" Just because I had added hi-hats to the sound.'

13 Apr '20 07:10:26 AM

'The goal or object of practice is pleasure. Hence practice, in this sense, only recommends to us the means of suppressing and avoiding pain. But our pleasures have much more formidable obstacles than our pains: phantoms, superstitions, terrors, the fear of death—everything that tends to disturb the soul. The picture of humanity is one of a troubled humanity, more terrified than in pain (even the plague is defined not only by the pain and suffering it transmits, but by the disturbance of the spirit which it institutes). It is this disturbance of the soul which increases suffering, renders it invincible—although its origin is more profound and is to be found elsewhere. It is composed of two elements: an illusion which arises from the body of an infinite capacity for pleasure; then a second illusion, cast in the mind, of an infinite duration of the soul itself, which is given over without restraint to the idea of an infinity of possible sufferings following death. And the two illusions are linked: the fear of infinite punishment is the natural price to be paid for having unlimited desires. It is on this ground that one must seek out Sisyphus and Tityos; "the fool's life at length becomes a hell on earth." Epicurus goes so far as to say that if injustice is an evil, if greed, ambition, and even debauchery are evils, it is because they deliver us up to the idea of a punishment which may occur at any instant. To be delivered without defense to this turmoil of the soul is, precisely, the condition of man, or the product of this double illusion. "… As it is, there is no way of resistance and no power, because everlasting punishment is to be feared after death." This is why, for Lucretius as for Spinoza later on, the religious man displays two aspects: avidity and anguish, covetousness and culpability—a strange complex that generates crimes. The spirit's disquietude is therefore brought about by the fear of dying when we are not yet dead, and also by the fear of not yet being dead once we already are. The entire problem is that of the source of this disturbance or of these two illusions.'

12 Apr '20 09:55:32 PM

'Epicureans live convinced of the truth of Epicurus' theory of nature, which makes physical reality all the reality there is. All that is real is ultimately made up exclusively of material atoms moving in an infinite void, by chance at some places and times forming worlds, such as our own. Epicurus made major points in this theory available for memorization in his published Letter to Herodotus, a pupil. Having memorized these major points, one could readily call them to mind, thereby renewing one's convinced belief in their truth, in case something might happen to make one waver, and thus threaten one's steady and pleasure-filled state of mind by some foreboding or worry about nature's operations. In particular, this theory makes it completely clear that, though gods do exist, they do not and cannot affect human life, or the world and its operations, in any way, through any actions of their own. Their own long-lasting lives of supreme katastematic bliss, effortlessly and beautifully varied in their communal activities, make them paragons and paradigms of that immortal blessedness that we ourselves attain through the immortal good of friendship. Except in that way, that is, as models of long-lasting and continuous happiness for us to aspire to, the gods play, and can play, no role in our lives—unless, that is, we are foolish or deluded enough to imagine one for them to play, as many people, including philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics do. Likewise, Epicurus' theory of nature shows that our physical deaths are the permanent end to our consciousness, and so to our very existence, as agents and seekers of happiness.'