Brazil Questions: Thoreau

 

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I am heading to Brazil to talk about Thoreau at a bi-centennial conference. I was sent a set of questions to answer for a pre-conference publication.*  Here are the answers. I haven’t included the questions, but they are easy enough to reverse engineer.

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Question 1: Wittgenstein and Thoreau.

I have long been most fascinated, most challenged and changed, by philosophers who combine analytical rigor with existential pathos. I strategize that bringing Wittgenstein and Thoreau together makes more visible the existential pathos of the one, Wittgenstein, and the analytical rigor of the other, Thoreau. So you could say that my strategy is to use each to insist on the completeness of the other, and so to offset the tendency to find only analytical rigor in Wittgenstein (if even that) or existential pathos in Thoreau (if even that).

Each writes in a way that creates a desire to refuse him: Wittgenstein constantly targets what Dewey once called the “occupational psychoses” of philosophers (meaning, by ‘psychoses’, not so much psychological disturbances as a pronounced characters of the mind). By doing so, Wittgenstein courts philosophers’ ire–self-knowledge is almost always unflattering, and philosophers (and I include myself) all too often placidly think that their character of mind only promotes the search for truth and does not, could not, hinder it. Philosophers yield that placidity grudgingly. Even worse, Wittgenstein often targets the occupational psychoses by satirizing them, sometimes harshly. And he problematizes the lexicon of philosophy, he takes favorite words and checkers them, creates pangs of worried conscience where before there had apparently been only clear consciousness–’theory’, ‘essence’, definition’. Thoreau constantly targets our existential psychoses, numbers them among our failures of economy. He too courts ire–the citizens of Concord (and they of course stand in for all of us, myself included) are in no hurry to surrender their complacency. They are living good lives, drawing close to the good life itself, and to be told that they are rather living in despair–even a quiet despair–is a dysangel, bad news. The citizens find such news unwelcome, and they surrender their complacency grumbling and grousing. Even worse, he satirizes their lives, makes fun of their clothes, their houses, their very civilization, and his satire is often harsh. He steals off with their favorite words, ‘economy’, ‘law’, ‘neighbor’, ‘living’, and he drags them into the woods and re-natures them, so that they become unfamiliar, unwieldy, partly wild. –Given all this, bringing the two together also helps to highlight the purpose of each, helps to show what each is about, that each is writing “to the glory of God and that his neighbor might be benefitted thereby”. But each reckons that his chosen audience is illusioned, and each knows that the illusions present themselves as rational, prudent, proper. To argue with the illusions, or only to argue with the illusions, drives their anchors deeper, since argument seems to sanction their claimed status as rational, prudent, proper–at least in a generic way. So each man attacks the illusions in other ways, with redescriptions, jokes, satires, rotations of the axes of investigation, shifts of aspect, –across many varieties of lusty crowing, hoping to wake their neighbors up, to disillusion them.

Thoreau emphasizes the necessaries of life, and he rolls them together into “retaining the vital heat”. I have always found that a happy way of presenting what is required for human life, and it seems to me to center Walden well. The question Thoreau asks his reader is nothing more than–and nothing less than–”How do you keep warm, stay vital?” That question has a way of getting at you, since it will not allow you to escape into luxuries of self-justification. However high-mindedly we may spend our days, we are still attempting to do what those who spend their days less high-mindedly are doing: we are keeping warm, we are all keeping warm. Thoreau will not let us forget that. We are all always answering his question, even if we do not want to and even if we tell ourselves we somehow are not. If we do not answer in words, we answer in deeds. Of course, we are most of us doing more than just keeping warm, but that does not mean that we ever stop keeping warm. It is easy to think we do when we do not build our houses, raise our own food, sew our own clothes. We lose track of the necessaries of life, and thus lose track of who and what we ultimately are, believing we can substitute second nature for first nature, to choose or create our own very standing in the world. Forcing us to acknowledge our need to keep warm, the inescapability of that task and the way it equalizes us all, brings our contingency and vulnerability into view, keeps it always before us. I take Thoreau to believe that we live in a motivated forgetfulness of our nature, and that our tendencies to focus on what is unnecessary are both result and cause of that forgetfulness. By going to the woods, Thoreau becomes a living reminder of what we forget. He becomes an externalized conscience–to put it paradoxically–calling each of us back to what we (all) are.

I read both Wittgenstein and Thoreau as first philosophical anthropologists, whatever else they may be, and I take each to be deeply concerned to elucidate the original living context of human life, and to work to rebuild our confidence in everyday human experience, to get us to see that the various uncertainties that attend to everyday human experience are no reason for a blanket mistrust of it. It is what we have: we must make as much of it as possible. Each man wrote a book that endeavors to bring its reader to independence of thought and independence of vision–an independence secured by trusting in everyday human experience and by making as much of it as possible. Properly husbanded, the grey rags and dust of everyday experience contain surprises, and may be shown to hide what, once seen, is most striking and powerful.

Question: Emerson and Thoreau and Eastern Religions

There is more to say about Emerson and Thoreau’s bows to the East than I can say here. But let me at least address what I take to be a framing consideration. As is well known, both men wanted America to realize itself–and to do so in a significant independence from Europe. Both feared that the Old World would have the last word for the New World. Now, I do not think either was naive enough to believe that the Old World would not get the first word in the New World. Their worry was about the hegemony of that Old World’s first word. Both knew that much of what the Old World offered had denatured into empty forms (I think here of Emerson’s sermon on the Eucharist, for example). But neither thought that what the Old World offered was fated to be mere dead forms: it might be possible to reanimate it. But that reanimation was not any simple process. And here the East became important. Think about a famous passage of Wittgenstein’s, the one about The Fall of philosophers (Philosophical Investigations 131):

For we can avoid ineptness or emptiness in our assertions only by presenting the model as what it is, as an object of comparison–as, so to speak, a measuring-rod; not as a preconceived idea to which reality must correspond. (The dogmatism into which we fall so easily in doing philosophy.)

For Emerson and Thoreau, what the Old World was offering had become, in its way, inept, empty. It was presented, or it presented itself, as that to which reality must correspond. It had become merely dogma. If it was to undergo a second birth, it had to re-presented, it had to become an object of comparison, a model, so that life could re-inhabit it.

Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood. I do not mean to say that either man wanted the Old World’s first word to end up, reborn, as the New World’s last word–that this was a strategy to reinvigorate Christianity–but I do think they wanted to challenge the dogmatism of dead forms, and to see what might be brought to live again. In a way, their goal was something like Kierkegaard’s–we cannot see Christianity for what it is unless we can see alternatives, other models, other objects of comparison. When Christianity becomes thoroughly acculturated, it no longer knows itself. (Christianity–indeed, religion–is always grammatically a way of seeing the world. When it becomes the way of seeing the world, it can no longer be distinguished from the world, and so is no longer Christianity–no longer religion.) But unlike Kierkegaard, neither Emerson nor Thoreau was hoping to re-make people Christian–but neither was hoping to make people followers of some Eastern religion. No, what both wanted was for people to see past the forms of religion, Western or Eastern, and to see the teeming life of the New World to which those forms often blinded them–to see the New World as New full stop (and not as New York or New England), to see one another as new men and women, to see the new trees and the flowers. In short, to allow the New World to feed their imaginations instead of allowing the Old World to imagine the New. (America is not the new Israel, a land of 2% milk and organic honey, and imagining it to be so is part of what makes it, keeps it, unapproachable.) When I consider Emerson and Thoreau’s use of Eastern religion, a passage of John Wisdom comes to mind (a final paragraph of one of the essays in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis):

As we all know but won’t remember, any classificatory system is a net spread on the blessed manifold of the individual and blinding us not to all but to many of its varieties and continuities. A new system will do the same but not in just the same ways. So that in accepting all the systems their blinding power is broken, their revealing power becomes acceptable; the individual is restored to us, not isolated as before we used language, not in a box as when language mastered us, but in ‘creation’s chorus’.

I find it hard to think of a more Emersonian or Thoreauvian passage than that, allowing for the differences of philosophical styles. Emerson and Thoreau wanted to hear creation’s chorus in the New World, not just some echo of a bare, ruined choir of Europe. The East was to help us remember what we all know but won’t remember. The East was to remind us that the West is just the West.

Question: Thoreau’s Education

One of the underappreciated themes of Walden is its sense of the power of remembered or acknowledged ignorance. Call it Walden’s Socratic theme. Early in the book, Thoreau asks (of himself and his neighbors): “How can he remember well his ignorance–which his growth requires–who has so often to use his knowledge?” It is easy to miss or to elide that little parenthetical–”which his growth requires”. Remembered ignorance is the fertile soil of personal growth. Socrates knew this, and it is a shame, I think, that we manage so often to miss it when we talk of Socratic ignorance. For Socrates, remembered or acknowledged ignorance is a source of power, not of weakness. So too for Thoreau. Remembering or acknowledging our ignorance marks out our limits, opens us to our finitude. Realizing that we don’t have the answer allows us to experience the question, to be put in question, and the question, thus experienced, spurs growth. We can’t outgrow our finitude, of course, but we can enlarge ourselves, reckon with our finitude, be more its master and less its thrall–and, at any rate, there is a difference in kind between submitting to our finitude and living in subjection to it.

I mention this theme, and Thoreau’s line about ignorance, because they tell us a great deal about Thoreau’s relationship to his education. We cannot ignore his education for a moment; I do not think that he did. But it is true that his relationship to his education was complicated. Perhaps the most important part of that complicated relationship was Thoreau’s abhorrence for an education as ornament, as something possessed but external, like a watch or a waistcoat. The only education he took to be worth having was one so deeply assimilated that it became indistinguishable from the expression of the educated person’s inner life. By that standard, much that we are taught is not worth having, not worth having learnt. Here, Thoreau’s thinking crosses paths with Gabriel Marcel’s, and in particular with Marcel’s distinction between being and having. Much of Walden is engaged with that distinction, albeit in Thoreau’s own terms. Thoreau is always asking what we can shed, part with, surrender: the things we have and that we could live without. The question about our education is whether it can become part of what we are, digested into our very being, or whether it is to remain something we have, indigestible. Odd as it may sound, I believe that Thoreau rates an education that is assimilated, digested, that becomes part of what we are, as itself something that helps to maintains our vital heat–it is a necessary of life. If we reflect carefully on Thoreau’s life at the cabin, we will see that it was a life of reading and writing and that its being so was internal to the deliberate life he went there to live.

Question: Cavell

This is a hard question to answer. Cavell’s work has certainly brought people to Thoreau, and gotten them to take Thoreau seriously as a philosopher–but I do not know that Cavell’s work has established Thoreau in analytic philosophy. I think most academic philosophers regard interest in Thoreau as, at best, a ‘soft’ interest, comparable to interest in applied ethics or the history of philosophy. Maybe they would think it ‘Continental’ if it weren’t for the embarrassing wrong continent thing. Anyway, as wonderful as Cavell’s work is–and it has been of the first importance to me–his own bona fides as a philosopher are often challenged in academic philosophy, if not dismissed. All hands concede his brilliance–but many have little patience for his work. So, Cavell’s own position in academic philosophy is not such as to garner Thoreau a reception; Cavell himself has never wholly been received into academic philosophy.

I guess that means that there is more work to do where Thoreau is concerned. But I am lukewarm about the prospect of that work. I do not know if it matters very much whether Thoreau is received into academic philosophy. He was clearly less than sanguine about professors of philosophy. “Honorable to profess because it was once honorable to live…”–that is not a compliment, unless you count left-handed compliments as actual compliments. It is really a rather severe asteism. I don’t think Thoreau himself would have been too worried about where the readers of Walden are housed, in the academy or out of it. He would have cared how they were housed–and why they were so housed.

I used to worry about this sort of thing, and used to worry about why so many of the philosophers I care about are so deliberately and purposefully shunted aside by academic philosophy. The answer is complicated–but one part of it is what academic philosophers know how to teach and what they don’t. They do not know how to teach Thoreau. You simply cannot teach a page of Thoreau in the same way that you can a page of Frege or a page of David Lewis. Teaching it requires a set of habits most philosophers do not cultivate–particular habits of reading and novel habits of tracking conceptual accuracy (especially when that accuracy is achieved by means other than formalizable argumentation). Should philosophers cultivate those habits? Well, some do and that is good; I hope that continues, and I try to teach students to cultivate them. But no one can cultivate every habit that might be useful in teaching a page of a worthwhile text. I hope Walden continues to find readers and I trust that it will. I trust some of them will be somewhere in the academy, sometimes even in philosophy, and that now and then the book will find its way onto a syllabus or at least that now and then copies will get pressed into the eager hands of poor students.

Question: Nietzsche and Thoreau, Conceptually Relevant Parallels

Both Thoreau and Nietzsche are philosophers of the morning. Both want their readers to awaken. Both take their readers to be worse off than their readers know. For each, an inflection of the concept of ‘repetition’ is central. But they part company, it seems to me, in a way that can be captured by reference to a passage from Emerson, that passage about “sitting at the feet of the familiar, the low”. Emerson is willing to surrender the past and future worlds for the tutelage of the commonplace, to surrender the great, the remote, the romantic. There are of course moments like this in Nietzsche, but I do not think that he is willing as Emerson is willing–certainly he is not as willing as Emerson is willing–to accept the tutelage of the familiar and the low. Thoreau is. In fact, Thoreau is willing to submit himself to that tutelage to a degree that even Emerson did not equal. This difference makes itself felt in the specific way that Thoreau and Nietzsche are philosophers of the morning. Thoreau is always thinking about tomorrow, the next day of the week, a Monday or a Tuesday or…. Nietzsche is always thinking about the end of an age, the end of some abstract noun with a majuscule first letter, Morality, Christianity, Philosophy, Truth. Thoreau worries about the workaday, about our work week. Nietzsche worries about the Eternal. Nietzsche strides abroad in seven-league boots. Thoreau saunters in cowhide boots, boots that cost him a dollar and a half a pair. This may make it sound that I think less of Nietzsche than I do of Thoreau, and that is true. But I think very highly indeed of Nietzsche, so it tells you more, perhaps, about how I rank Thoreau.

There are many passages in Nietzsche I can imagine Thoreau enjoying, but I cannot imagine him writing them. Take, for example, “How the ‘True World’ Finally Became a Fable”. I can easily imagine Thoreau chuckling over that, and finding justice in it. But wouldn’t he also have found it a bit much? Overheated? Thoreau may intend to, and may succeed at, crowing as lustily as Chanticleer, but Thoreau’s crowing has no ambition to be “the cockcrow of positivism”. Incipit Monday, not Zarathustra.

Take none of this to suggest that I think that studying Thoreau in conjunction with Nietzsche a bad idea (or vice versa). They are both Emersonian–but in different ways, taking different things from him, both acting in his spirit while acting differently. (Some proof, I suppose, that Emerson was no slave to a foolish consistency.) Nietzsche occasionally sneaks a look down, at the commonplace, just as Thoreau does a look up, at the Eternal, but their orientations in thought remain quite different.

Thoreau writes to an audience of poor students, not collectively, but rather distributively, in a way that individualizes them, that speaks to their individual, shaky hearts and consciences. Even Thoreau’s crowing carries a sense of privacy, as if he crowed just for me or just for you. Nietzsche writes to everyone and no one, massively, in a language of plate tectonics, of ponderous, vast, lithospherical movements, spoken by mysterious subterranean forces, spoken to the blue sky above.

Question: Walden in Trump’s America

There’s an idea of which I have long been convinced, namely that the more conscience we have, the more consciousness we have. Walden is written to the individual conscience (there is no non-individual conscience, conscience always has one individual owner). President Trump, so far as I can tell, does not just lack a conscience, conscience itself is his aversion. (Who is Trump to tell Trump what he may and may not do?) And an important reason for that is that he does not himself seem to want to be more conscious, and he certainly does not want others to be more conscious. He would entrap us all in a dubious twilight–a twilight in which we reconcile ourselves to our limitations of conscience and consciousness by dallying with stuff: cell phones, flat screen televisions, clothes and cars. Satiety replaces clarity. Orange is the new stupid.

Thoreau would force us from that dubious twilight, into the white light of the sun. He would turn us from our relationships toward stuff and to our relationship toward ourselves. I don’t know that Thoreau would think the most crucial lines of resistance to Trump are to be drawn between groups on the streets of Washington or of…Anywhere, USA. I don’t know that he would think the most crucial lines of resistance are to be drawn between any us and them. The most crucial line of resistance must divide my own heart: I must set my face against the Trump in myself, against the glacial, self-diddling sloth that threatens eventually to consume me. If I pretend that I have no Trump in myself, I strengthen both that Trump and the one in the White House. My guess at Thoreau’s advice to us in Trump’s America (even, dare I say it, in Trump’s world)? —Disobey yourself! Not in the sense, of course, of slighting conscience, but in the sense of acquiring an effectual self-command, enough of fortitude and temperance to actually do what prudence and justice reveal to be right. If we can’t say No to ourselves how can we say No to Trump?

Question: Thoreau’s Poetry

My impression is that Thoreau’s poetry is not much read. If that is right, it is too bad; the poetry is quite good. But it is true that Thoreau’s best poetry is in Walden itself, in those passages in the book that–looked at from the right angle–clearly anticipate some of the best poetry of Francis Ponge (consider, for example, Ponge’s “The Frog”). It is those passages, somewhat more than the acknowledged, less prosing poetry, that have influenced my own poetry most–along with Thoreau’s various observations on writing, most importantly his observations on writing and seeing, on seeing as a writer and writing as a seer.

I shrink from comparing my poetry to Thoreau’s, but I will briefly compare it with his. Like Thoreau, I am concerned with place, with the sense of place. I am happy to write poetry that concerns itself with the abstract. And, more importantly, I am endlessly fascinated by paths, trails, creeks, rivers, ponds, trees and barns. I believe they have meaning in themselves and that they can withstand the gaze sub specie aeterni–because that gaze, rightly practiced, does not see through things but sees them, in all their imponderable hic-et-nunc-ness. That great reader of Thoreau, Henry Bugbee (Inward Morning) writes:

Only as things are dense and opaque do they stand forth in the light of eternity, and take the light. To take that which exists as existing, and not as a symbol for something else; to find something to which one gives full heed, and not merely to push right through it in search of a beyond, or to have from it only a message at once directing the mind away from it and onto other things; such is the experience of things as eternal, in the making. To experience things in their density is to experience containment in reality. But the agile mind and the distraught soul militate against true perception; for true perception requires stillness in the presence of things, the active, open reception of the limitless gift of things.

To experience things in their density as they take the light of eternity: there’s an aim for a Thoreauvian poet. And like all expressions of high-mindedness, it is profoundly humbling–for I have never gotten close to doing it, despite bending myself and my words that way again and again.

Question: Snowden

I often think about that passage in “Economy” in which Thoreau talks of the slave trade. That passage can be read as if Thoreau fails to condemn slavery as he ought. But that is not the right way to read it. His point is that slavery exists in many forms, Southern, surely–a form he terms ‘gross but somewhat foreign’–but also Northern, less gross but more native. And, worst of all, that form of enslavement to self that is the lot of most of us, self-enslavement. Thoreau is not trying to rank these slaveries as social ills, in terms of their consequences, but rather as moral evils, in terms of their structures. The southern form, which, remember, we know Thoreau detested, is in this context treated as less worse than the other two only because there is no blameworthiness as such that falls on the slaves themselves. Each of the other two requires, to differing degrees and in different ways, that the slave be blameworthy for his status as slave. He could make other choices. He could live in other ways. And he I would, he might also help to end the enforced slavery of those in the South, to which his voluntary slavery contributes. Thoreau writes in his essay on John Brown that

Our foes are in our midst and all about us. There is hardly a house but is divided against itself, for our foe is the all but universal woodenness of both head and heart, the want of vitality in man, which is the effect of our vice; and hence are begotten fear, superstition, bigotry, persecution, and slavery of all kinds. We are mere figure-heads upon a hulk, with livers in the place of hearts. The curse is the worship of idols, which at length changes the worshipper into a stone image himself…

When I think about people like Edward Snowden–who I do not know and of whose character I am uninformed–I wonder about our reaction to them. Is Snowden a hero of civil disobedience? I see no reason to deny it. Snowden, hurrah! –But what do we learn from him? Does he increase our desire to root the foes out of our own breasts–the woodenness of our hearts, our lack of vital heat. Or do we want to turn on others, as if their breasts were wooden but our fleshly? Do we ask what it is about ourselves that has made us willing to live in the Five Eyes Panopticon? Why tolerate constant surveillance? What are we getting in trade? Can we live the lives we currently want without making ourselves liable to global surveillance? I find it hard to believe we are not more worried about these questions. But we are not, are we?

Instead we cluck-cluck at Five Eyes and wish away the Panopticon, all the while living the life of Panopticism. We want instant access to everything, without remembering that we number among the everything. (What we really want is to see everything without being seen, like the eye that limits the visual field in the Tractatus.) We worship idols that petrify us. We want our vices for free. We will to live lives of what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called “muzzled freedom” just so that we can have the stuff we want. Snowden should remind us of that fact. And then, after we have come to some just settlement with ourselves, perhaps we can seek a just settlement with Five Eyes without docilely handing over the very thing that we keep loudly protesting that we will never yield.

Question: Work on Thoreau

I do not keep up with scholarly work on Thoreau in any disciplined way. Ed Mooney’s recent work means a lot to me. But the work that matters most is work that is older, and not, as such, Thoreau scholarship: Henry Bugbee’s Inward Morning and his essays, John M. Anderson’s The Individual and the New World and David Norton’s Personal Destinies. What matters most about Walden is where you go from it. Thoreau himself did not stay.

*The interview was conducted by Eduardo Vincentini de Medeiros.  My thanks to him.

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.

 

 

Heidegger on Philosophy, Art and Religion

Here’s a thing about Heidegger.  For all that is forbidding and foreboding in his writing, he can produce passages of a peculiar beauty.  Often, the passages seem to come from next-to-nothing, like a mouse spontaneously generated from grey rags and dust. Or they suddenly loom up, unforeseeably jutting out of an apparently flat landscape.

Consider the abrupt apotheosizing of the inner form of philosophy in this passage:

Only if we go along with this work [Hegel’s Phenomenology] with patience–understood in the sense of really working with it–will it show its actuality and its inner form.  However, the form of this work–here as everywhere else in genuine philosophy–is not an addition which is meant for the literary connoisseur.  Nor is the question that of literary decoration or of stylistic talent.  Rather, its inner form is the inner necessity of the issue itself.  For philosophy is, like art and religion, a human-superhuman affair of primary and ultimate significance.  Clearly separated from both art and religion and yet equally primary with both of them, philosophy necessarily stands in the radiance of what is beautiful and in the throes of what is holy.

(It is fascinating how this passage resonates with the Preface of PI.  Wittgenstein there relates how he pictured the essence of the book he wanted to write, and how he then came to repent of the picture.  He realized that the actual inner form of his book was the inner necessity of the book’s issue itself–and that the book’s inner form was not one that proceeded from one remark to another naturally and without breaks.  So when he ends the Preface by conceding that he has not written a good book–or not as good a book as he would have liked to write–he is not measuring his lack of success against the pictured essence of the book.  And he is not measuring the book’s literary decoration or his stylistic talent, where each of those is understood as ‘additive’.  No.  He is measuring the book, measuring himself as its writer, against a full realization of the book’s own actual inner form, a full realization of its own inner necessity. Every force evolves a form, yes; but not every force fully evolves its form.)

Philosophy as a Managerial Concern (Heidegger)

In the phenomenology of spirit, as consciousness’s becoming-other-to-itself and coming-to-itself, “forms” of consciousness emerge, as Hegel says; but this emergence of forms of consciousness has nothing to do with the procedure, now becoming routine and stemming from various motivations, of classifying the so-called types of world views and types of philosophical standpoints according to just any schema.  These typologies and morphologies would be a harmless way of passing time, if at the same time the odd idea were not in play that, by placing a philosophy in the net of types, one has decided on the possible and of course relative truth of that philosophy.  This urge toward classification and such like always begins at a time when the lack of the power to do philosophy gets the upper hand, so that sophistry comes to dominate.  But sophistry provides itself and its own barrenness with some respectability by first catching whatever ventures to emerge in philosophy in the net of standpoints, and then, having given each type a label, by leaving it with the people.  This label sees to it that, regarding the philosophy in question, one will be interested in its label only so as to compare it with another label.  Subsequently, the literary discussions about the label give rise to a literature which in its kind may be quite considerable.  Consequently, the Kant literature is not only more important than Kant himself, but above all else it reaches the point where no one any longer gets to the matter itself.  The procedure reflects the mysterious art of sophistry, which always and necessarily arises along with philosophy and controls the field.  Nowadays the power of sophism has “organized” itself, one of the many indications of this being the popularity of typologies of philosophical standpoints–typologies which appear in various disguises (manuals and series).  Philosophy becomes a managerial concern–a diabolical condition to which the younger scientific minds, rare enough as they are nowadays, fall prey in their prime.  But the reason for mentioning these seemingly remote things at exactly this point is the fact that in their confusion these typologies appeal to Hegel’s Phenomenology, in the belief and pretense that in Hegel a similar typology is aimed at, although without the benefit of contemporary depth psychology and sociology.

Heidegger, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (p. 29)

Although this seems as timely as when it was written in the 1930’s, if not more so, I am interested in it right now because I think there is a similar understanding of Bradley afoot, as if he were spreading a net of types in his work.  He is not–no more than Hegel was.  His work is no more managerial than Hegel’s.

Anyway, sophistry is internal to philosophy, always present when philosophy is present.  Sophistry is philosophy’s shadow.  And the rise of the isms is always a bad sign, in a time, in a country, in a department, in a mind.

 

 

 

Bradley’s Rule

Another entry in the Bradley Calvacade:

I am afraid that, when some readers hear a poor ‘ontologist’ like myself uttering warning cries about the limits of our knowledge, they will think of Satan mighty in the scriptures or rebuking sin.  And yet I feel bound to submit to their attention that very rule which made me an ontologist, still keeps, and will keep me one:  Where you find a puzzle you are making an assumption, and it is your duty to find out what that assumption is.

What should we make of this rule?  In context, I believe the right way to understand it is to situate it against Kant’s Antinomies, or, relatedly, against Ramsey’s maxim.  Let me use the latter:

It is a heuristic maxim that the truth lies not in one of two disputed views, but in some third possibility which has not yet been thought of, and which we only discover by rejecting something assumed as obvious by the two disputants.

Ramsey’s maxim, forcefully economized (and internalized) as Bradley’s Rule, shapes the whole of Appearance and Reality–and indeed the whole of Bradley’s work.

The anti-Augustinian property colors metaphilosophy:  when someone asks how to do philosophy, we know, but when no one asks (and we are doing it), we do not know.  Philosophical ‘practice’ can seem impermeable to metaphilosophical ‘theory’.  All too often, in the throes of the problems, our metaphilosophy reduces to ornamental chatter.  It bears no load.  But not in Bradley.  He keeps his rules–he walks his talk’s walk.

 

 

 

Oakeshott on the Importance of Teaching Differences

Here is Michael Oakeshott in Experience and Its Modes, channeling Bradley:

To bother about a confusion de genres is the sign of decadent thought.  –But this is not the view of the matter I have come to take.  For…it became increasingly clear that unless these forms of experience were separated and kept separate, our experience would be unprotected against the most insidious and crippling of all forms of error–irrelevance.  And when we consider further the errors and confusion, the irrelevance and cross-purposes, which follow from a failure to determine the exact character and significance of (for example) scientific or historical experience, it becomes possible to suppose that those who offer us their opinions upon these topics may have something to say of which we should take notice.  To dismiss the whole affair as a matter of mere words is the first impulse only of those who are ignorant of the chaos into which experience degenerates when this kind of question is answered perfunctorily or is left altogether without an answer.  “Truth”, says Bacon, “comes more easily out of error than out of confusion”:  but the view I have to recommend is that confusion, ignoratio elenchi, is itself the most fatal of all errors, and that it occurs whenever argument or inference passes from one world of experience to another, from what is abstracted on one principle from what is abstracted upon another, from what is abstract to what is concrete, and from what is concrete to what is abstract…So far, then, as this part of my subject is concerned, it may be considered as an investigation of the character of irrelevance or ignoratio elenchi.

(Oakeshott names Bradley’s Appearance and Reality as one of the two books, along with Hegel’s Phenomenology, from which he has learnt the most.)

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