Of Platonic Prose

From David K. O’Connor’s introduction to the Shelley translation of Plato’s Symposium:

  Plato’s style is natural without being plain. He avoided the rhetorical artifice that embellished mush of the prose of his day, though he could produce fine specimens of this ancient euphuism  when it served his purpose, for characterization or parody. In the Symposium, the speeches of Pausanias, Eryximachus, and Agathon are all markedly artificial, while those of Aristophanes and Alcibiades display a more natural diction, in keeping with their narrative ends and comic sensibilities. Yet as these later two speeches demonstrate, the register of this natural style can range from earthy colloquialism to ethereal elevation. Socrates’ own speech, or rather the speech he attributes to his mentor Diotima, displays the full extent of this range. Teasing or didactic question-and-answer, shorn of any ornament, stands side by side with soaring periods that move into the realm of the prose poem.

  But the dialogues do not merely oscillate between low and high. Plato makes the high reveal the potentialities of the low, and lets the low interrogate the pretensions of the high. A word first heard in offhand banter at a dialogue’s beginning may reappear and be transfigured in a solemn speech at the dialogue’s center; or a sparkling phrase a speaker thinks will show profundity may be dragged by Socrates’ questionings through the common grit of shoemakers, cooks, and horse trainers, where its false luster is worn away. Perhaps this range is best illustrated for an English reader by Shakespeare’s style in the period of his great tragedies. The Vulgar gravedigger’s quibbles on death and decay, transfigured in the mouth of the sublime Hamlet: in such a creation Plato might have recognized his own stylistic genius.

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Anthony Kerrigan on Borges

While rummaging through used bookshops in Colorado this weekend I picked up a copy of Jorge Luis Borges’s Ficciones. I confess I had not read Borges before, but I remembered an allusion to his work in Foucault’s The Order of Things. The following is from the introduction to Ficciones and is written by Anthony Kerrigan.

Because he has read all the books, because he has translated Gide, Kafka, Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, the burning of the library at Alexandria–or in Don Quixote’s backyard–does not make him blanch anew. All the books were sacred and inviolable. They all proclaimed the True God. Our immediate forebears saw the ineffable face of the Creator, and reeled back, stopping to write Torat yyy Hedut yyy Piqqude yyy where the series of y’s stood for Jehovah.
More hard-mouthed now, though with the same arbitrary, stylized Solomonic stars in our eyes, we venture to challenge the heavens. Borges bears witness with us in this century, with shabby Faust, but is mercifully economic. No Gargantuan novel says more than he can in one of his ficciones. Borges is no Gorgias; his brevity is no device, as brevity was in the Middle Ages. His style is as laconic in statement as a parallel, as suggestively infinite. He is an imagist of cultural fugues and choreographies, of the faltering, lamentable Dance of Life. One cinquepace is not the same as another, but there is no need to dance until one drops in the marathon. In literature it is only necessary to outline the steps. Let the people dance!

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Hemingway to Scribner

Charlie there is no future in anything. I hope you agree. That is why I like it at war. Every day and every night there is a strong possibility that you will get killed and not have to write. I have to write to be happy whether I get paid or not. But it is a hell of a disease to be born with. I like to do it. Which is even worse. That makes it from a disease into a vice. Then I want to do it better than anybody has ever done it which makes it into an obsession. An obsession is terrible.


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The ‘Unpalatable Propositions’ of McCabe’s Aquinas.

From Terry Eagleton’s introduction to Herbert McCabe’s God and Evil: In the Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas.

As for evil, the other term in the book’s title, Herbert argues that there cannot be anything evil which is not also in some respect good, since evil belongs to created things, and creation is good in itself. It does not make sense to say that the essence of anything as such is evil. It is good in itself that there are lentils and equilateral triangles around the place. This, of course, also commits us to the unpalatable proposition that it is a good thing that Britney Spears exists, or that Michael Jackson once did; but however palpably absurd the claim might appear, we simply have to cling to faith here against all the seductions of reason.


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Don’t Try This In A Bar…

A friend of mine emailed this to me. I figured you might get as many laughs from it as I have.

Dear Paris Review, What Books Impress a Girl?.

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“A Place to Stop And Work”

Early in Stanley Cavell’s “The Availability of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy” the following line sits curled up, hissing angrily, waiting to strike:

“Criticism is always an affront, and its only justification lies in usefulness, in making its object available to just response.”

The fangs sink into their target in the next line. (Cavell is criticizing David Pole’s The Later Philosophy of Wittgenstein.) “Pole’s work,” he says, “is not useful.”


Of course this snake has been caught; its venom is purposefully used on another, as if  Cavell had walked into an APA conference room holding a terra-cotta pot and a pungi. I am worried more with the one we find in our own philosophical back yard. I fear the one waiting to strike my heels when, in A.W. Moore’s words, I “confront the question, as any author does, of what excuse I have for demanding my reader’s attention.” Simply put, any author is always at odds with himself since he cannot judge his own work. He worries, he makes excuses, he fears a host of possibilities which cannot touch him if he does not put pen to paper and so he, for a long time, does not touch one to the other. It is no accident that the legitimate criticism of one’s own work has the same form as the despair over it: “What’s the use?”

Cavell brings up the snake in his own backyard in the introduction to a piece called “Existentialism and Analytic Philosophy”

 So when I spoke of primitiveness at the start of these introductory words, I was thinking not alone of what was perhaps unnecessarily rudimentary in my education, but of what was more rigorously closed off by it. I had, for example, got through hardly more than a small handful of pages in Being and Time, fighting for every inch of lost ground, as I wrote the piece of work I am introducing here. The piece can be said to be about, or to enact, I imagine to its credit, the difficulty, in the era in which it was written, of finding one’s philosophical hands and feet, let alone voice –a place to stop and work.

I should be careful here. Cavell’s reiteration of the snake is the last sentence. What surrounds this excerpt is a personal worry about one’s own education on one hand and, on the other, an exposition of philosophy as constantly questioning itself. This is how all philosophers are situated. I stand in relation to a discipline that has, over a few thousand years, worked tirelessly to perfect its own criticism. Into that cacophony of voices I must enter one of my own which I may or may not have found yet. I have one tool at my disposal, an education that is necessarily truncated by a short span of life. I must learn to cope with all of this if I am to move forward. It’s no easy task. As Cavell puts it:

Out of such a sense it is understandable that one’s education, or edification, should become the subject of major Romantic works, say, beyond Walden, of The Prelude and of the Biographia Literaria –works in which the quest for one’s own question, and for what it takes to pose it, are entered together. One is not preparation for the other, the madness and the method are the same. (There is no metaphilosophy.)

The madness and the method are the same. Writing, especially philosophical writing, should be deeply personal. After all, it is an integral part of one’s own edification. As with all things worth doing, none of it comes easy. As one friend of mine (Rob Wallis) put it: We walk a well worn path and we ultimately walk it alone. What matters is that you are walking it. In other words, the snake biting you is all part of the process. You can learn from his venom and the healing that comes after. If you confront him and remain still, if you stop moving altogether, only then has he succeeded in killing you.

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A (Belated) Birthday

It has been far too long since I posted here. It’s time to start again.

I posted this on Auburn’s Philosophy Facebook earlier, but I thought it might do well on here considering the interests of some of those who happen by this little corner of the net.

It is Alan Turing’s 100th Birthday for another few minutes or so and though he is generally remembered as the great father of computer science we would also do well to credit his place in philosophy. Turing’s stature in the canon of great mathematicians is legendary and his remarks on the philosophy of that subject are worth attention. We might know him best as an attendee of Wittgenstein’s lectures on the foundations of mathematics. He is, after all, featured in the text of those lectures as one of Wittgenstein’s interlocutors.

Later on in life he crystallized his legacy in both philosophy and computer science by posing a hypothetical experiment that now bears his name. The Turing Problem can be called the birth of ‘philosophy of computer science’ since it brought into question the status of artificial intelligence. Roughly formulated, the test has a man and a woman hide and a judge determine which is which by relying on notes written by both on pieces of paper. Turing replaced the woman with a computer and asked if the judge could tell which one was the man. If the judge cannot discern the difference, then what are we to say of the computer? One can see the philosophical worries immediately: Is the machine conscious? Intelligent? How well can we recreate ourselves?

Whatever we think of the question we can see its effects on our field. The names in work on Artificial Intelligence are closer to us than Turing’s might be: Hubert Dreyfus, John Searle, Dan Dennett, Ned Block, Jerry Fodor, and Hilary Putnam are a few that come to mind. Though it should be noted that Turing is not always the central figure in the works of these philosophers, Alan and his problem always sit somewhere in the background of the discussion.

Aside from all of this, there is a real argument to be made for taking the events surrounding Turing’s death as its own philosophical statement. Turing was subjected to chemical treatments by the British government in order to “correct” his homosexuality. After a long period of depression and painful side effects he committed suicide by lacing an apple with cyanide and eating it. To quote Jaron Lanier on the subject “It’s impossible to know what role the torture Turing was enduring at the time played in his formulation of the Turing Test. But it is undeniable that one of the key figures in the defeat of fascism was destroyed, by our side, after the war, because he was gay. No wonder his imagination pondered the rights of strange creatures.”

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From David Foster Wallace

Early on in Infinite Jest:

Were he now still among the living, Dr. Incandenza would now describe tennis in the paradoxical terms of what’s now called ‘Extra-Linear Dynamics.’ And Schtitt, whose knowledge of formal math is probably about equivalent to that of a Taiwanese kindergartner, nevertheless seemed to know what Hopman and van der Meer and Bollettieri seemed not to know: that locating beauty and art and magic and improvement and keys to excellence and victory in the prolix flux of match play is not a fractal matter of reducing chaos to a pattern. Seemed intuitively to sense that it was a matter not of reduction at all, but — perversely — of expansion, the aleatory flutter of uncontrolled, metastatic growth — each well-shot ball admitting of n possible responses, responses to those responses, and on into what Incandenza would articulate to anyone who shared both his backgrounds as a Cantorian continuum of infinities of possible move and response, Cantorian and beautiful because infoliating, contained, this diagnate infinity of infinities of choice and execution, mathematically uncontrolled but humanly contained, bounded by the talent and imagination of self and opponent, bent in on itself by the containing boundaries of skill and imagination that brought one player finally down, that kept both from winning, that made it, finally, a game, these boundaries of self.

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A Friendly Musical Suggestion

Here’s a favorite from Josh Ritter‘s second album, Animal Years:

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Recreating Ourselves to Death

In his brilliant Amusing Ourselves To Death Neil Postman argued that the form in which an idea is conveyed is not irrelevant to its truth evaluation. In fact, Postman said, the medium in which communication takes place is itself not philosophically neutral in any way. In his words:

Whatever the original and limited context of its use may have been, a medium has the power to fly far beyond that context into new and unexpected ones. Because of the way it directs us to organize our minds and integrate our experience of the world, it imposes itself on our consciousness and social institutions in myriad forms. It sometimes has the power to become implicated in our concepts of piety, or goodness, or beauty. And it is always implicated in the ways we define and regulate our ideas of truth.

What Postman had to say is that, while it may seem innocuous enough, a medium —an information technology— has its own set of philosophical prejudices built into its form. This is easiest to see when one thinks about how we tend to justify epistemic claims between different media. Note the differences between justification in the spoken word and the written word. Hearsay and personal conversation do not meet the requirements of the printed word in most cases, but in a courtroom the spoken word reigns by means of testimony from the witness. There are also various standards of justification internal to a specific technology, like the difference between the proverbs of a sage and and the lawyer’s more “austere” legalese in the spoken word, or the difference between the letter to a friend and an academic text in the typography.

This claim was importantly tied to Postman’s grander thesis in the book, which held that in America the society was not following the path of Orwell’s 1984, but that of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The difference, he says, is that “Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.” His reading of modern American society revolved around the effects of the television on our philosophical bearing. He noted the schizophrenia of the medium and its deification of self. He saw the rise of an image-based culture over a text-based one, and his reading of the possible fallout caused by such a shift in medium has proven to be nearly prophetic.

I want to ask Postman’s question about a different medium. I wonder what the implications of the personal computer might be. Postman was well aware of this question in 1985 when Amusing Ourselves To Death was published:

Although I believe the computer to be a vastly overrated technology, I mention it here because, clearly, Americans have accorded it with their customary mindless inattention; which means they will use it as they are told, without a whimper. Thus, a central thesis of computer technology —that the principle difficulty we have in solving problems stems from insufficient data— will go unexamined. Until years from now, when it will be noticed that the massive collection and speed-of-light retrieval of data have been of great value to large-scale organizations but have solved very little of importance to most people and have created at least as many problems for them as they may have solved.

(I posted recently about discussions involving the “information glut” caused by the computers. Postman saw it coming in 1985.)

I agree with Postman about the need to examine this central thesis of computing, but I want to step back for a moment. Postman’s attack on the television has the great advantage of being a kind of one-trick pony. The television set has one fundamental principle, it entertains. From HBO to The Weather Channel, there exists nothing but the constant battle for ratings and viewers. The computer, then, is flexible in a way that the television cannot be. When you open the box with your new laptop in it, you have options about how you want to use it and what you want to use it for. (For example, you cannot use your TV to create much of anything, but creation is one of the great powers of owning a PC.) The PC is a world of opportunity admitting of all manner of media like the words spoken over Skype or the videos watched on YouTube.

The idea that I am playing around with here is that the philosophical bias of the computer is not simply dependent on the hardware. Where the real story to tell resides is in the software.  “Technologists,” Jaron Lanier says, “make up extensions to your being, like remote eyes and ears (web-cams and mobile phones) and expanded memory (the world of details you can search for online).” Such extensions usually are singular. They extend a part of us. The personal computer, on the other hand, is a medium for such extensions. It is not so much an extension of us, but a recreation of ourselves in electronic format. (Here we can see one of the philosophical implications of the hardware: the Singularity Principle and its pure reductive physicalism.) The hardware merely mimics our internal organs, the software mimics our abilities and our thoughts. In this way, each software paradigm has its own philosophical bent.

Lets begin with the operating system. At no time was it necessary that we have file systems, windows, launchers, buttons, or any type of GUI beyond text-based entry. All of these software-related changes took place because of some brainstorming technologist thinking up ways to streamline the user interface. File systems brought a kind of organization to the PC that tells us “everything in its right place” even when that may not be conducive to the task at hand. (Have you ever tried compiling multiple files from multiple programs into a single image or a single sound byte? It can be a headache. Some groups write their own systems just to streamline the process.) Note how each of today’s operating systems has its own persona. Linux is the freedom junkie, something akin to technological libertarianism. Windows is all business in a business world and its programs are as confusing as they are powerful. OSX claims creativity and ease of use at the expense of freedoms enjoyed by the other two. It seems most fitting to me that in an all business western world the market share of Windows users is still the majority in both the home and in the workplace.

Beyond the operating system we have programs like Photoshop and the audio tools like Logic Pro and Pro Tools. These programs have redefined their respective output media and force us to ask a number of questions of ethical, epistemic, and ontological import. The philosophical bent of such programs tends towards absolute freedom of change. A picture edited in Photoshop can be more sculpture than photography. At what point do we stop calling the edited work a photograph? In the case of audio, at what point do we stop believing in the singing voice of the auto-tuned pop-princess?  At the end of the day we walk away with a very different conception of both photography and music than we once had. In some cases the change looks like the kind of artistic change that comes between modernity and post-modernity. In this case though, the changes are not part of finding a new critique of the prior work, but in perfecting it to an unreasonable and unrealistic flawlessness. This is especially true in the case of music where the digital medium tends constantly towards the inhuman.

Examples could go on and on, and much better writers, Postman (Technopoly) and Lanier (You Are Not A Gadget) among them, have given extensive treatments in this regard. I’ll leave you to read them rather than me. What I am most interested are two points at the heart of the examples. First, as I stated earlier, the computer is a recreation of the self. Second, software usually has the effect of dehumanizing everything it touches. Both of these are importantly related I think. In creating the computer in our own image we took up a central thesis: we can recreate ourselves in digital format. Thus, the software demands that you take it seriously as another sentient being. (Lanier’s favorite instance of the moment you might realize this is when you really believe that Google “knows” what you want.) This not only has the effect of changing the meanings of humanistic terms (“friend” on Facebook) but also allows us to abdicate activities in lieu of the machine. The great fear of the latter is the abdication of activities which indelibly enrich the human experience. Effectively, what may be most disturbing about computers is that it can demand we rethink not just our world, but ourselves.

I want to explore this a bit in a series of posts over the next week or so beginning with a short history and eventually ending in a return to postman’s central thesis. (Hopefully.)

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