Half Rumination, Half Scrutiny (Mervyn Peake)

The long-sounding final paragraph of MP’s The Craft of the Lead Pencil:

What does it matter how long or slow you are in the traffic of lead and paper?  The advance from virtual blindness to that state of perception–half rumination, half scrutiny–is all that matters.  The end is hypothetical.  It is the journey that counts.

We could say this of writing too, and philosophy, and of thoughtful living generally. 

With an ‘L’ on his Forehead…

There are more values available for response in human life than anyone can possibly be responsible to.

I think of this as the Not World Enough and Time Problem:  we are all missing out on things that are objectively such as not to be missed.  That is the human predicament.

I am strongly tempted to think that a lure to relativism, and to psychologizing the values of others, is our desire to deny the Problem:  we are never missing out; we just made different decisions, believed or desired different things, than so-and-so did.  We aren’t missing out and neither is he, neither is she.  But we know–and we do know–that in many cases we are missing out and that we will have to miss out.  It may not be our fault, but it is always our loss.


Reading Annie Dillard on a picnic table.  Tiny ants trudge around in myopic busyness.  One ambitious climber clambers up and onto the open pages of the book.  I fail to observe him and so crush him with my hand.  He dies slowly over minutes, seconds, aeons.  I watch him die:  it is the only gift I can give him.  His filament legs stop moving and he goes still.  Goes. Gone.  A universe of death packed into his inarticulate articulated body.  Goes.  Gone.  I look up at the patchy blue sky.  It seems to ripple above the water of the lake.  It envies the lake’s shores, the lake’s shapeliness.  A form of meaning.  The horizon is an obstruction, not a limit.  Gone.  I begin again to read, now careful where I put my hands.

Receptions End

Receptions End

A daughter is a treasure
That keeps her father wakeful

Gather the Bud Lite bottles
Dump the undrunk champagne
Lavender table cloths shake and refold
Abandoned bouquets water and take home

The tent lights the night
Fans blow back the August heat

Revelry done, collect unopened gifts

Stray flowers decorate the ground
As if they would re-root
But life goes on
And life goes on
Sweet-sour sweet

Done is done

Drink what wine you may
With the rest honor the mysteries

Put the trash in the dumpster
On Debardeleben St.

Treasureless, go home to sleep

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Processed with VSCO with c1 preset

Letter to a Philosophical Inquirer

As I suppose most philosophers do, I get fairly common requests from folks who are fascinated by philosophy asking for reading lists and advice. I thought I would share my latest response to such a request.

Dear (Inquirer),


   Reading serious philosophers is demanding, but it is ultimately worth it.  But you have to read with a notebook and a pencil, working to write out what you take passages to mean, providing illustrations (literally, pictures), asking yourself questions, making notes of connections with other texts–whether that philosopher’s or other philosophers’.  You cannot read passively.  You have to push back against the text as hard as you can.  It will whip you soundly, but if you are game, and keep coming back, the volleys will last longer and you will begin to understand more and more.

   Suggestions:  Plato’s Socratic dialogues, particularly the Euthyphro, the Euthydemus, the Ion, the Charmides, the Apology.  Read Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics.  Read St. Thomas (Aquinas Ethicus is free online and a great place to start.)  Read Descartes’ Meditations.  Read Rousseau’s Social Contract and Emile.  Read Kant’s Prolegomena.  Read Kierkegaard’s The Present Age.  Read F H Bradley’s Ethical Studies.  Read Russell’s Problems of Philosophy.  Read Wittgenstein’s Blue Book.   These are all wonderfully written, central works, that are written for an educated reader, but not necessarily someone with much formal training in philosophy.  If you can find someone to read with, that is a huge help.  Best if it is someone you can talk to face-to-face, but online is better than nothing.

Expect to be baffled.  Expect to be confused.  As I tell my students, philosophy requires a high confusion threshold.  To read philosophy, you have to be willing to be confused, know you are confused, but nonetheless to read on.  Much of what is necessary in philosophy is the right intellectual habituation, and you can only get that by frequent active reading and frequent conversation.





Heidegger on an Education in Thinking

The following words of Heidegger’s have been on my mind for the past couple of weeks.

We all still need an education in thinking, and before that first a knowledge of what being educated and uneducated in thinking means.  In this respect, Aristotle gives us a hint in Book IV of his Metaphysics (1006a ff.).  It reads…”For it is uneducated not to have an eye for when it is necessary to look for a proof, and when this is not necessary.”

This sentence demands careful reflection.  For it is not yet decided in what way that which needs no proof in order to become accessible to thinking is to be experienced.  Is it dialectical mediation or originary intuition or neither of the two? Only the peculiar quality of that which demands of us above all else to be admitted can decide about that.  But how is this to make the decision possible for us before we have admitted it? In what circle are we moving here, inevitably?

Aristotle’s passage–and its non-kissing cousin in EN–have become more and more deeply embedded in my thinking and teaching.  My Seven Deadly Sins course this summer (now just ended) in many ways pivots on the EN passage.  I take that passage to insist on differences in kind among objectivities, differences in kind among, say, geometry and history and philosophy and rhetoric.  I have grown increasingly resistant to attempts to solder philosophy to science or to mathematics–or to whatever.  (Not that I was ever very receptive to such attempts.)  Philosophy is its own thing and not another thing.  Perhaps Heidegger gets a little too invested here and there in soldering philosophy (or thinking) to poetry (that is a topic for another time), but generally he is acrobatically adept at sundering philosophy from other things.  (Heidegger inherits the form of his Idealist predecessors’ metaphilosophy even if he rejects its specific content. –Compare him here to Bradley or to Oakeshott.)

Anyway, I do not like thematizing philosophy as argument, as argumentative.  Why should philosophy be beholden to proof?  I do not mean that philosophy should jettison proof or that proof does not matter.  But why should it be essential?  I am happy to say that argument has its place, an honored place, in philosophy.  But there is no reason to believe that gaining admittance to philosophy requires an inference ticket (apologies to Ryle).   –That does not mean that we just throw open the doors–free admission!  –No, but some things may get in without an inference ticket.  –Ok.  But what, and why, and when, and how?  –We need a sense of what is relevant in philosophy, to philosophy, and a sense that relevance itself is not a matter (always) for proof.  (In what circle are we moving here, inevitably?)  We need to understand what it looks like to be educated and uneducated in philosophy, so that we can embark on our philosophical education.

We glimpse here why the vocabulary of late Heidegger runs through the all the inflections of ‘receptive spontaneity’, why hearkening and following a path become leitmotifs of the work.  The claim of relevance is not always to be established by argument; sometimes the claim of relevance is simply the peculiar quality of certain things, a claim that demands acknowledgment from us.  We hearken to such things.  We follow in their paths.  Their relevance is their solemn power, calling us to free response. We make ourselves available to thought.



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