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 May '04 09:10:20 PM

Some paragraphs of Charles Bernstein reminiscent of an entry of mine of last August:

'In some sense these are just issues of style; a style is chosen and it is not to the point simply to be evaluative about which is best intrinsically. But to acknowledge that there are philosophical assumptions that underlie given stylistic practices - assumptions about the nature of reason, objects, the world, persons, morality, justice. At a certain historical moment certain paths were chosen as to the style that would express a quasiscientific voice of reason and authority - even though, as Thomas Kuhn points out in The Structures of Scientific Revolution, this "normal" science language cannot account for paradigm shifts central to scientific progress - a voice that was patriarchal, monologic, authoritative, impersonal. The predominance of this authoritative plain style (taught in such guides as Strunk and White) and its valorization as a picture of clarity and reason is a relatively recent phenomenon and its social meaning will no doubt be clarified by a careful tracing of its origins that would be a central project for the historian of social forms. Morris Croll has elucidated an earlier stage of these developments in his account of the rise of the Anti-Ciceronian prose style in the late 16th century, a development in some ways paralleling such current critiques as this one of contemporary expository forms, in its rejection of a static predetermined formality and its attempt "to portray not a thought, but a mind thinking." Montaigne most clearly exemplifies this movement, especially in terms of his methodological awareness of the implications of style: "I stray from the path, but it is rather by licence than oversight. My ideas follow each other, but sometimes it is at a distance, and they look at each other, but with an oblique gaze. . . . It is the lazy reader who loses track of the subject, not I. . . . I keep changing without constraint or order. My style and my mind both go a-vagabonding. . . . I mean that my matter should distinguish itself. It shows sufficiently where it changes, where it ends, where begins, where resumes, without interlacing of words, of conjunctions, or connectives introduced for weak or negligent ears, and without glossing myself."'

'This understanding [of the social meanings of styles and modes] should lead to a very acute sense of the depletion of styles and tones in the public realm of factual discourse, including in professional philosophy and the academy in general, but also newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV. Indeed, even within the predominant styles of contemporary philosophy, few of the tones and moods that potentially exist within the chosen style are utilized to any extent. Indeed, the only significant alternative to the neutral-toned plain style of most philosophical writing of the present time is the weightier tone of judiciousness; but rarely whimsical tones or angry, or befuddled or lethargic or ironic, as if these tones were moods that have been banished, realms of human experience thus systematically untouchable. Not only is the question of method suppressed, but even the possibilities of tone within the style are reduced!'

11 May '04 03:37:48 AM

'The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.'

10 May '04 05:06:37 AM

'Something - a practice like woodcarving, or the burial of dead, or of offering handshakes upon meeting - is genuinely social insofar as it is done by everyone.'

So goes, approximately, a source I'm responding to in a paper I'm working on. It's well-intentioned, I suppose, but there's something very dumb there: are we somehow to take it, then, that more parochial practices are less social, not as social? (Which implicitly means: not really social.)


- by S.'s lights a practices seems to be 'some thing that multiple people do'; do different ways of putting it make the phenomenon clearer?

a certain way things are done
a certain way to do things
a certain way of doing things
the way we do things
the way we do ______

- insofar as it can be done in a certain way, it seems that the skill of a single person could be characterized this way, too

- way: out of various possible ways of doing the same thing? (allowing for various non-essentialist reformulations)

- they-self: others are (i.e. others as) those from whom one does not distinguish oneself

- we-self: those from whom one does not distinguish oneself while distinguishing oneself from some others

- by and large, practices are things 'we' engage in, as per the preceding; this is what S. misses: we do this in this way, as opposed to them

- they (i.e. not us) aren't necessarily competing practicers; compare the difference between Christian and Hindu death rites to the difference between carpentry and not-carpentry ('the people who do not do this thing')

- 'doing something the same way' is too simplistic; rather, something is social when what other people do - no, how they do it - matters

10 May '04 04:40:46 AM

Half an aphorism:

The only 'we' the liberal humanist tradition wants to countenance is the one that encompasses all of humanity.

10 May '04 04:28:59 AM

I've often noticed lately how strong a need I feel to index anything I even think of writing here about music to the particular circumstances in which I heard what I'm writing about - even if only something as mundane as 'while listening to... today...'. This in itself isn't that unusual, but lately it's been met (and this may be why it bothers me more now) by an even stronger sense that prefacing anything I might say in this way fails to contribute anything significant to the sense. But I can't see the thoughts I have in mind as interesting enough to be articulated, absent the context. So, lacking also the capacity to give my ideas substance through further thought and critical attention to the music, I write nothing.

6 May '04 10:52:26 AM

'I tried to think of any "external distinguishing characteristics" I might have. Did I in fact have any?

"I'm thirty, I'm five foot nine, a hundred and forty pounds, short hair, no glasses." It occurred to me as I listed these for her that they hardly constituted external distinguishing characteristics. There could be fifty such men in the Pacific Hotel tearoom. I had been there before, and it was a big place. She needed something more noticeable. But I couldn't think of anything. Which is not to say that I didn't have any distinguishing characteristics. I owned a signed copy of Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain. I had a slow resting pulse rate: forty-seven normally, and no higher than seventy with a high fever. I was out of work. I knew the names of all the brothers Karamazov. But none of these distinguishing characteristics was external.'

6 May '04 10:40:29 AM

When I was a kid I would always take some little thing or other with me to school - a toy, a special pen, a watch or a ring. I didn't necessarily do anything with it: it's just that I had to have it. Not just any thing would do, because I agonized over what to bring on any given day. To what end, I am not sure. Often the thing would never leave my bag, or pocket.

At some point the need I felt began to be for books, instead of trinkets or whatnot. When I was at the stage where I read straight through every book I picked up, and could hardly be bothered to look up from the book I was currently reading, there was little question as to which book to take with me, although there was instead the perhaps more embarrassing (as in 'embarrassment of riches') question of which other book to take, in case I finished with the first one. For a long time now, though, that stage has been a fondly remembered but irretrievably lost one. Instead I read a dozen or more books 'at once' (misleading since I rarely finish any of them, or keep at them for any length of time), and am so worried about whether I'm interested enough in a given book, and whether I feel I can devote any effort to it on a given day, and whether it's what I 'should' be reading on that day (the ethical force deriving in an obscure way from a vaguely apprehended idea of what my half-project-half-quest is, that day), and so on and so on and so on, that I should just as well decide which books to put in my bag based on their covers, or on their weight (which would probably be the most practical factor to base my decisions on, by far).

It's never a guarantee that I'll 'need' to read from the book I bring that day. Or even that I'll try to once the opportunity presents itself (it always presents itself). I mean - of course, I allow myself to feel guilty over these things. But really I just need to have the book there, just like the toys from years ago.

So this is what I caught myself doing, just now, five thirty with the window cracked waiting for the signs of the impending storm to go away so that I can walk to school and try to write a little: flipping through some of the books I've gotten out during the night, trying to decide which one would be 'best' for today.

5 May '04 08:09:57 AM

'He who loves is attached not only to the "faults" of the beloved, not only to the whims and weaknesses of a woman. Wrinkles in the face, moles, shabby clothes, and a lopsided walk bind him more lastingly and relentlessly than any beauty. This has long been known. And why? If the theory is correct that feeling is not located in the head, that we sentiently experience a window, a cloud, a tree not in our brains but rather in the place where we see it, then we are, in looking at our beloved, too, outside ourselves. But in a torment of tension and ravishment. Our feeling, dazzled, flutters like a flock of birds in the woman's radiance. And as birds seek refuge in the leafy recesses of a tree, feelings escape into the shaded wrinkles, the awkward movements and inconspicuous blemishes of the body we love, where they can lie low in safety. And no passer-by would guess that it is just here, in what is defective and censurable, that the fleeting darts of adoration nestle.'

5 May '04 05:31:09 AM


'Philosophy, Hegel's included, invites the general objection that by inevitably having concepts for its material it anticipates an idealistic decision. In fact no philosophy, not even extreme empiricism, can drag in the facta bruta and present them like cases in anatomy or experiments in physics; no philosophy can paste the particulars into the text, as seductive paintings would hoodwink it into believing. But the argument in its formality and generality takes as fetishistic a view of the concept as the concept does in interpreting itself naïvely in its own domain: in either case it is regarded as a self-sufficient totality over which philosophical thought has no power. In truth, all concepts, even the philosophical ones, refer to nonconceptualities, because concepts on their part are moments of the reality that requires their formation, primarily for the control of nature. What conceptualization appears to be from within, to one engaged in it - the predominance of its sphere, without which nothing is known - must not be mistaken for what it is in itself. Such a semblance of being-in-itself is conferred on it by the motion that exempts it from reality, to which it is harnessed in turn.

Necessity compels philosophy to operate with concepts, but this necessity must not be turned into the virtue of their priority - no more than, conversely, criticism of that virtue can be turned into a summary verdict against philosophy. On the other hand, the insight that philosophy's conceptual knowledge is not the absolute of philosophy - this insight, for all its inescapability, is again due to the nature of the concept. It is not a dogmatic thesis, much less a naïvely realistic one. Initially, such concepts as that of "being" at the start of Hegel's Logic emphatically mean nonconceptualities; as Lask put it, they "mean beyond themselves." Dissatisfaction with their own conceptuality is part of their meaning, although the inclusion of nonconceptuality in their meaning makes it tendentially their equal and thus keeps them trapped within themselves. The substance of concepts is to them both immanent, as far as the mind is concerned, and transcendant as far as being is concerned. To be aware of this is to be able to get rid of concept fetishism. Philosophical reflection makes sure of the nonconceptual in the concept. It would be empty otherwise, according to Kant's dictum; in the end, having ceased to be a concept of anything at all, it would be nothing.

A philosophy that lets us know this, that extinguishes the autarky of the concept, strips the blindfold from our eyes. That the concept is a concept even when dealing with things in being does not change the fact that on its part it is entwined with a nonconceptual whole. Its only insulation from that whole is its reification - that which establishes it as a concept. The concept is an element in dialectical logic, like any other. What survives in it is the fact that nonconceptuality has conveyed it by way of its meaning, which in turn establishes its conceptuality. To refer to nonconceptualities - as ultimately, according to traditional epistemology, every definition of concepts requires nonconceptual, deictic elements - is characteristic of the concept, and so is the contrary: that as the abstract unit of the noumena subsumed thereunder it will depart from the noumenal. To change this direction of conceptuality, to give it a turn toward nonidentity, is the hinge of negative dialectics. Insight into the constitutive character of the nonconceptual in the concept would end the compulsive identification which the concept brings unless halted by such reflection. Reflection upon its own meaning is the way out of the concept's seeming being-in-itself as a unit of meaning.'