Saturday, February 5, 2011

Punk moves

A brilliant grad student I know has coined the phrase "punk move," for when philosophers say stuff that you'd only say if you were trying to win at all cost, and/or if you were just trying to get your theory to come out right, and/or if you had lost your bearings.

Sophistry, in other words.

But the thing is: worse than the fact that punk moves get made, is that they get made all the time, and people take them seriously. I mean ALL the time, and REALLY seriously.

Why is that?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Forests and Trees

Ok, here's the initial thesis: the same thing that makes analytic philosophers be good readers also makes them be bad readers. What makes them be good readers is that they ask after every single sentence -- word, even -- exactly what it means and whether or not it is true. What makes them be bad readers is that sometimes you have to ease up on the facts of the wording in order to see what someone is actually saying.

This gets us to the deeper thesis: it is hard to know what counts as good philosophy. Why? Lots of reasons, but for present purposes: because it is hard to know what amounts to just trying to get the wording right (a fine endeavor, but not something to get excited about) as opposed to getting the idea right. Why? Because, on the one hand, every way of wording something adds up to being a different idea; but, on the other hand, sometimes the differences are piddly.

The analytic philosophers I know are mostly 8 times smarter than everyone else. This said, there is something about the training, I think, that makes it easy for them to lose track of objects -- conceptual objects I mean. Easy to mistake wording for content; easy, conversely, to think positions the same that are not the same at all, e.g., metaphysical realism and the correspondence theory of truth.

I think, anyway, that I think that being a good philosopher partly involves being able to keep very close track of objects; being able to tell which are the important ones; and being able to judge well what degree of analytic resolution is required in relation to any given issue.

For the record.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Eternal love

I have been thinking about romantic love that can't acted upon. There are two basic schools of thought on this, it seems to me. One is that if a love affair can't be had, one should move on, and not be in love with the person any more. On this view, continuing to be in love shows up as pathological, as not being able to let go. There was a conversation on NPR the other day to this effect, in relation to the country song "He Stopped Loving Her Today." The other view is that one loves the other until, well, until one no longer does, but with the proviso that this may well be until one dies, depending upon the nature of what one feels for the other.

As with other aspects of romantic love, I think that our culture is deeply ambivalent about this. Indeed, I am always a little shocked by how un-romantic many people's views are, yet also how contradictory. We disapprove of arranged marriages, for example - "No, no, marriage is about true love," we protest - but then, when Mark Sanford reported that he would at least die happy knowing that he's met and loved his soul-mate - and that she wasn't his wife, with whom he reported not being in love - just about everyone I know thought that he should stay in his marriage. Any suggestion to the contrary was met with derision. Why? Because whether or not one is in love with one's spouse is irrelevant. [Though the anxiety (if he can leave, maybe I or my spouse can leave) and the anger (if I have to be unhappy, he has to be too) in the air were palpable.]

Anyway, I don't know if it is right to think that loving someone forever is a weakness of will. I can see it both ways.

Friday, December 11, 2009


I'm thinking that if Hume were - was? - right about what the self is(n't), it would be a lot easier to change than it is. For the record, it's harder than it should be, even when you think you're willing. This may even decide this point for Aristotle over Plato, let alone Hume.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Get Smart

I wish I was (were?) a better teacher. I think that there are some parts of it that I am good at. For instance, I'm not a jerk; I feel comfortable in my skin, in a classroom, even in a big huge one, and it's easy for me to be playful and easy. I find weak students perfectly gratifying to work with, so long as they are interested. I think I model a kind of intellectual integrity. I think I'm even a little charismatic, in my own way. That stuff all comes naturally. But the real crux of the matter, in terms of the skill of the thing, is being able to create repeated, well-structured moments in which students can think actively in relation to a bit of content. The best teacher I ever had, art of teaching-wise, always made me think of the opening sequence to the old tv show Get Smart: hallway upon hallway that would end in a sliding door that would open just as the guy got there. The problem is that my own thinking is so profoundly static: I see cross-sections of form/composition. I just do. That's my one intellectual gift. So it's hard for me to create narratives into which students can enter. Specifically: mysteries, with plot turns that students have to work out. Instead I always want them to help me draw a picture. It may seem - though only for a minute - that that could be ok too. But nah. Plot turns are the way to go. And what they hinge upon is posing the right questions. So far I have learned that "In what ways does .... ?" is always better than "Why does ...?" but I have no innate talent for it. Sucks.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

For the brilliant Plato scholar in question

I went to a talk yesterday by a brilliant Plato scholar. The discussion period was completely strange, though. The thing is, Plato wrote poetry in the form of dialogue. And he did it on purpose. So, for example, it's not like the Jefferson Bible, i.e., not such that in principle you could just underline all the things Socrates says, and then know, verbatim, what Plato thinks. Sometimes the character of Socrates says things that Plato probably thinks; sometimes he doesn't. Plato is good enough of a writer that the character of Socrates usually (though not always) sounds pretty much like the same, largely annoying guy. So you mostly have to be able to tell how to interpret what he says from having first read - and, eventually, having both read and considered - the whole, and weighing its meaning. Yes, I know, this is circular -- how will you first get a sense of the whole, if you don't know how to read the character of Socrates, especially? And there are entire schools of thought whose claim to fame, from my perspective, is that they got the meaning of the whole wrong. Part of the answer is that it is a work that you have to read a lot. The first time, you can expect to get only that there is something very good and very beautiful, which it is possible to long for, and also to use as a kind of frame of reference, a point of orientation. If the text works on you, then you do long for it, by the end. If this very minimal backdrop is correct, interpretively, then, when you read it again, certain interpretations become impossible. And so on.

But beyond this, when, in the text, it is plain, for example, that the characters are making things up (like, say, imaginary cities) and/or formulating stories that they themselves describe as not being literally true, it doesn't seem terribly taxing, as an interpretive matter, to expect people to realize that they are making things up and/or formulating stories that are not literally true! Really. Making things up. So as to capture something true. But not literally. For some reason, the kind of people who go into political theory and philosophy have a extremely difficult time with the idea that meaning can be communicated in this way. It's just so weird, though. I mean, the guy did not write treatises. He even says why. What would possess a person to nonetheless read his dialogues as though they were treatises?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

X-ray vision

I often think that it would be nice if there were something that one could do in order to determine the deep-most truth of the matter about oneself. The true reading. I suppose that's what psychoanalysis is supposed to be, and also what skilled tarot readers value in their cards. But the former hangs on too many a priori assumptions to be substantively correct, it seems to me, and the latter requires a leap of faith. I wish you could just know. Like an x-ray or an MRI. Then at least you would know what you're dealing with.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


I love fonts, and was just this morning extolling the pleasures to be had from appreciating the fact that every little change in lettering changes the implicit meaning communicated by a text. That this is so is obvious, of course. But ... when you stop and think about it, it's sort of amazing that humans are such that the presence or absence of a serif can change everything. Being able to think symbolically is, well, a little astonishing. Anyway, I'm curious to hear others' favorite fonts, if there are any Others around. Also ones for which you have disdain or otherwise disapprove.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Utilitarians and love

I have been thinking about how when you miss someone, I mean for real, it's not that you feel some generic emotion - missing - and that the person is the object thereof. No. When you really miss someone, what you experience is the absence of them, in their very own constitutive particularity. Missing a person you love is nothing at all like missing some other person you love; it just doesn't work that way. This gets us to utilitarianism because even Mill (J.S.), who wants to, can't - within the categories available to him given his ontological commitments - actually differentiate qualitatively between the pleasure of this and the pleasure of that. Why are the higher pleasures higher? Because they are more pleasurable. MacIntyre pointed out a long time ago that there is no pleasure-substratum; rather, pleasures are all different. (Though, for the record, we could have learnt this from Plato.) It is a failing of utilitarianism, it seems to me, that it can't make good on this. And it's an implication of not being able to make good on this, I think, that utilitarianism can't make sense of what it is to miss someone -- or, by extension, what it is to love someone. This seems a fatal flaw for an account of the moral, though I appreciate that the Kantians in the crowd will beg to differ. Don't get me started on them, though. No offense to my favorite K's.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Kantian duty

I'm teaching a course on Kant this semester, so I have been thinking about him more than I usually do. Kant never spoke to me. In college, my brilliant friend Anne Richardson wrote a seminar paper on Kant, embodying in it all of the grace and elegance of her own intellect. But I didn't get it. I'm too romantic. Also not Christian enough. Plus, no doubt, too immature, too impatient. Still, my own significant shortcomings not withstanding, I think there is something that even a better version of me could reject, in Kant. There's beauty there, at least, which there really isn't with the utilitarians. In Mill, the son I mean, there is kindness, I think, and a certain sort of forbearance that I associate with wisdom. But not beauty, not really. So Kant gets points for that. And it's not that I mind that the beauty is austere -- it is a little with Plato, too, and I like Plato a lot. But even so it rubs me the wrong way. I think I dislike the whole idea of duty. I don't mind the idea of an experienced moral compulsion. But the Kantian stance seems to just be about enforced control, all the way down. Plato's all about moderation, to be sure, but moderation isn't about following rules. Let alone following rules as a way of escaping the many and well-known limitations of ego. Moderation is about actually *being* well-ordered. I admit that I'm not. But still, Plato's image of it appeals. Kant's just seems like undertaking, as an adult, to have been raised by repressed Protestants. No offense. I think that what I dislike most about duty as an organizing principle is that, for me, it makes the actions one takes in its name seem false. I don't like it when people act out of duty toward me. It makes me think that they don't mean it. I don't know why it feels different than someone acting just ... as the Good requires -- why that doesn't feel so fake. Anyway I am trying to put my finger on it, why Kant doesn't appeal.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Immortality again

Crowley and I had an exchange about eternity and infinity, which then made it on to *his* blog. I told him that for me the sense of infinity, when I have it, doesn't open out onto immortality. No defeat of death; only a kind of undistilled eros in the present. When I think of the times that I have felt it, a sentence from Simone Weil always comes to mind: "If we apply to the present that point of desire within us which corresponds to finality, it pierces right through to the eternal."


Back after a 6-month hiatus.

For Christmas, I took a long, long train ride. Even though I haven't cared for him in the past, I bought and read on the ride Immortality, by Milan Kundera. I was surprised to find that I liked it, much more than I thought I would.

It reminds me of that drawing thing we had when we were kids - a "Spirograph" - you made the thing into which you inserted your pen go around and around, and it ended up making a whole intact pattern in the end. I thought that this was kind of like that. It should have been all self-conscious and affected, but for some reason it wasn't. I thought he managed to write a "post-modern" novel that still felt like a novel. You stay in the same place, but somehow it gets all filled in.

I can't get over it, as I have always in the past been vaguely irritated by M.K. Apparently my tastes have changed. I'm not sure if it's a good thing. Thus I will say only that I liked it, not that it was good. I'm curious to hear what others think.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Sample cards from a great deck I just discovered

Card Images from the Oracle of the Radiant Sun

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Pragmatism, performance, truthful speakers

Re: crowleycrow's comment on my 3/28 post: I'm not an expert, by any means, on the relationship between pragmatism and deconstruction. There are for sure people who connect them, and say that they are something like both. Rorty, for example. Maybe Stanley Fish? This is just from my little political theory/philosophy corner, though. I think of them, pragmatism and deconstruction/p-structuralism, as sharing many assumptions, and so having considerable over-lap, but also as being answers to different questions. And certainly arising in different intellectual contexts. But the upshot? I would say that, in different ways, proponents of both deny that there is any there, there. Be it in relation to the meaning of texts or text-analogues, or in relation to other kinds of entities.

I agree with crowleycrow's observation that "performance" is intelligible as an idea only against the back-drop of what it isn't, namely: "non-performance." And I don't think it's just a matter of how these words, like all words, depend on what they are not, in order to be what they are (that's the post-structuralist irony part). "Performance" (as in, the enacting of an appearance that is to one extent or another at odds with an underlying reality), is an actual modality, or way of being, and like lying, and fiction more generally, it is a modality that can't work unless there are already in place ways of being the objective of which is to create an appearance that is consistent with, rather than false to, an underlying reality. We could say (I do say, I think -- am herewith saying) that performance (real performance, no pun intended) is ontologically contingent upon transparent expression. Though this is not to deny Anselmo's point, that all expression is expression.

I always think of crowleycrow's own "truthful speakers," from Engine Summer, when I think of what a non-performative stance is like. They of course have to *learn* how to be truthful speakers ... but that gets us back to Anselmo's point.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Performing sincerity

I have a friend with whom I argue about the same thing in all manner of guise. A recent version centered on rhetoric, in the context of writing non-fiction. I was arguing that there is some way in which writing that is transparent, i.e., made up out of sentences in which what one means is in some significant (and stylistically unique) sense equivalent to what one says -- that such writing is, in a way that matters, less rhetorically inflected than other forms. My friend disagrees with this, holds that all writing is performance all the way down. To think - I take him to be saying - that "transparent" writing is somehow any less of a show, is analogous to thinking that there is such a thing as "value-free" social science.

He may be right about this. But the thing that it gets to, and that I don't think he's right about - and maybe he doesn't even think it - is the idea that everything period is performance. It seems to me that the problem with this view, that is to say with pragmatism, is that there are certain things that presuppose that it is not so, presuppose that there is indeed a difference between performance and not-performance. Sincerity, for example. It is in the nature of the case that if one is talking about a "performance of sincerity," then one is not actually talking about sincerity. Or at a minimum one is not using the word in a way that is consistent with its accepted definition. It strikes me that this is a good reason to think that pragmatism is flawed, philosophically, viz., that it renders sincerity unintelligible.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Math and art

Anselmo-b raised all kinds of interesting issues in his comments in response to my "Aesthetic Realism" post (March 11). Since we can't see the threads well in this blog, I'll make a new post. He said that with math, the proof might be analogous to a work of art, but the theorem itself is truly impersonal -- not in the way that I was talking about with other works of art, which way amounts, I think to the work being a perfect version of itself, as my friend Howard would say, but instead literally: the theorem, he says, would be exactly the same no matter who thought of it, or how they went about showing that it has to be so.

I don't know enough about math to be able to comment, but it's interesting and I wish I did. A question that it raises for me is: are we sure that theorem and proof are as separable in practice as they are analytically? I mean, how would we want to characterize the activity of working on a problem? Is it like doing aesthetic work in some other medium? It seems to me that it might be. But I don't know.

Anselmo, can you say more about the evil art question? I spent some time recently wondering about art that is ugly (viz., wondering if there is such a thing, and if so what makes it be art still), a question that I'd got to by wondering why raunchy writing about sex is so often bad writing, and if it's in the nature of the case that it would have to be. I decided no, that you could have ugly art, be it writing or visual. But are you asking something different? Say more. Others too.

The thesaurus, continued

This is a continuation of my response to jc's comments, under the entry "Books."

As I guess everybody knows, the standard Roget's has words listed in the back, with numbers next to them. You look up the word, find its number, then look up the number in the front. The thing that is so great about it is that the numbers mark off conceptual categories, into which the words fall. It's good because you can see how nuances of meaning between words are given by the differing general concepts that govern their definitions. I love that. Though admittedly I love conceptual categories in general. As it were.

Anyway, it gets better. My understanding is that Roget was a realist about the categories, which means that he thought that meaning is organized in the way that it is because reality is organized that way. Reality with a capital r, that is. Now, that's probably wrong deep down - or, maybe it's only right deep down - but it's still kind of neat (a word that I recognize can be said but not written) that the thesaurus is so unabashedly ontological. You have to admire an attempted mapping of what philosophers call real (in contrast to "nominal") kinds. Don't we think?

But why do they always have to be dicks? (See jc's report of article about how Roget was an unpleasant weirdo.)


There is a place near where I live that is sort of other-worldly. I have a friend who set a book there, for that reason I assume. Many of the trees there are in love with each other, and have no inhibitions about showing it. Some of the others are kind of like guardians. Safe to be around, though -- not like those creepy piggie-trees in Speaker for the Dead. It feels like a border-land. I was up there this morning, with my favorite German Shepherd. I think that he would like it if there were sheep there. Sometimes there are cows, though not often. Today there was a beautiful white-tailed deer. Unfortunately for her, he chased her. She was faster than him though.

Friday, March 14, 2008

A few minutes later, they became engaged

The morning after as they sat at breakfast, he told her his name. It was Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, Esquire.

"I knew it!" she said, for there was something romantic and chivalrous, passionate, melancholy, yet determined about him which went with the wild, dark-plumed name -- a name which had in her mind the steel blue gleam of rooks' wings, the hoarse laughter of their caws, the snake-like twisting descent of their feathers in a silver pool, and a thousand other things besides, which will be described shortly.

"Mine is Orlando," she said. He had guessed it. For if you see a ship in full sail coming with the sun on it proudly sweeping across the Mediterranean from the South Seas, one says at once, "Orlando," he explained.