O. K. Bouwsma Does the Forms

Imagine, for this purpose, a museum–a museum, deep in calm, fixed in breathlessness, done in silence, clothed in invisibility, awful, laid away in heaven.  And the walls thereof are purest essence, some quint-essence, some tri-essence, but none semi-essence.  If senescence is no wall, for neither is olderness nor youngerness any ness at all, all is evermore and never the less.  And of what essence and what essences are those walls?  Of all heavenlinessences are they and of brightlinessence the beaminest.  Essences participating in essence, like May-girls around May-pole enribboned, and enribboning one another, they ring-round this conjugation of hyper-supers…This is the museum of quiddities, of whatnesses in their highest nest, tucked away, ensconced, waiting for refiners defining, so fine they are.  The museum of none-such such-and-suches.

Let us enter…

John Locke Lectures, “The Flux”,

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.





Jason Slatton’s *We Are Nighttime Travelers* (Music Review)

“Beauty is difficult.” So said Ezra Pound. He was not wrong.

But what did he mean? Fairly obviously, he meant that creating beauty demands self-discipline, self-denial. Of course self-discipline and self-denial can be achieved while beauty remains fugitive. Beauty cannot be taken captive simply by self-control. Pound also meant, perhaps less obviously, that living in openness to beauty and in search of it, is difficult. Beauty does not sell itself cheap, even less give itself away. To find it, to take it in, we have to be in order, fit for it. Beauty is difficult–to create and to receive.

I begin here because crucial lines on Jason Slatton’s new album, We are Nighttime Travellers, are these (borrowed from Dylan):

But I feel nothing for their game,/
Where beauty goes unrecognized
Dark Eyes

Beauty, both (the conditions of) its creation and (the conditions of) its recognition, absorbs Slatton and shapes the album. Slatton sings of a life in which beauty does not go unrecognized, and he sings of the struggles and the rewards of such a life, the task of staying fit for beauty, the task of remaining open to it.

My world is slowly spinning/
Dismantling and then beginning/
Blood shaking through a tired heart
And She Goes On

Remaining capable of beauty—its creation or its reception—means that we have to keep making ourselves new, that we cannot allow our past to enclose us. We have to become practiced beginners; able again and again to dismantle all that cushions the shock of beauty. It can be an exhausting, frightening business—a life of repetitious ‘repentance’ and renewal. Becoming tired of it leads into games in which beauty goes unrecognized—in which it is either absent, or its role is played by some stand-in, some false beauty. Something, anything less demanding. –Plato understood this better than anyone.

This need to start again, to refresh oneself, is registered several times on the album. But it is not a need frigidly to abandon the past, to deny it. No, the goal of Slatton’s personas is to master it, to find a way to understand it and internalize it so that it becomes a living part of them instead of a gathering sediment threatening to entomb them. As they work to be alive, open to beauty, they also become more complicated, more experienced. –How to retain, manage, an increasingly sophisticated naivety? The album records the struggle. It concedes implicitly that there is no perfect achievement of the goal; at best, it is a July possession: we may make it to summer, but there are still stifling days, thunderstorms. We win to lose and win again. Beauty is never done with us; we can never be done with beauty. We tire; it dims. It shines again; we reawaken.   So it goes.

The dimming of beauty figures in several songs and in complicated ways.

I’m planting flowers/
In the cold, black dirt/
Just to keep the my last connection alive/
And all these gods I’m praying to/
They bring me everything but you
Chet Baker

Did you make it out alive?/
Did you ever find your wings?/
Did you find a place to rest/
In the empty everything?

These mudtrack boots/
Are full of rain and nails/
The dark fills in/
Where the light has failed/
The neon dirt is turning/
Red as blood/
You can see your story/
Written in the mud
Confident Thieves

These moments do not finish the story, dark and muddy though they are.

Honey let in the air/
Yeah, its cold but we can drift/
All the flowers bloom/
From the light across the room/
We can watch the nighttime lift

The album acknowledges nighttime, reckons time spent in the dark. But, it is more importantly an album that acknowledges and searches for (to quote Pound once more)

A little light, like a rushlight
to lead back to splendour.

The songs of We are Nighttime Travelers are meditatively paced, contemplative. They take root somewhere between the ear and the mind, in a space they grow to fill. The melodies are sweet—very sweet, but muted. The album is a series of small gestures–small gestures freighted with large meanings, like the beckoning hand of a lover. The playing is impressive throughout, sensitive and deliberate. The songcraft is impeccable. Slatton’s vocals do what is necessary and no more: they stand in front of the music but do not preen, never claim more than their due.

The songs unite thematically, as I have suggested. They unite thematically around a lofty ideal. But they do this by keeping ordinary time, by living through and valuing moments—and the details the moments house.

Paint peeling off the walls/
I think about it as it/
Falls around my feet/
A little of this kind of thing/
Goes a long, long way…

It’s the lonely silence in your place/
It’s the empty morning that I face/
It’s the way you cry/
You take me over
Chet Baker

 I kept you in my book of days/
But you come ringing back again/
Don’t you?/
Don’t you?
Book of Days

These are songs of noticing, of taking notice. And once someone has taken notice of something, anything, there is no telling what he may notice next.

The iceberg drunks/
Are drifting slow and tired/
The silver moon hangs/
On circus wires/
Down here something is about to give/
And the barb-wire stars/
Whisper I might live
Confident Thieves

To remain capable of beauty is to own our limitations: we have to bear it in our mortality.

Everything rests on fragile bones/
Everything rests on fragile bones

Perhaps, for the gods, beauty reveals itself as neighborly, easy. But for us it is strange, a stranger.  It beckons us as it keeps its distance, crooking its finger as it steps backward.

And all these gods I’m praying to/
They bring me everything but you/
Everything but you/
Everything but you
Chet Baker

 We Are Nighttime Travelers knows that the material is the vehicle of the spiritual. It knows that to be open to beauty is neither to be open to something other than a wife, a child, a song, nor is it to be open to a single characteristic of a wife, a child, a song—at the expense of all the others. It is instead a way of being open to a wife’s, a child’s, a song’s unique and unified way of being beautiful. There is a certain intimacy between a wife and her beauty, a child and her beauty, a song and its beauty. That certain intimacy is essential to beauty—and despite the fact that beauty is lofty, strange, distant, it is also somehow here among us, to be found, if we find it, in our common lives. Everything rests on fragile bones.

Philosophical Investigations and Three Kinds of Illusion

I am linking an essay of mine that has been hanging out in my Huh? File.  That is, the file in which I put things I have written whose merits and demerits are unclear to me, or so nearly even that I cannot decide whether to invest any more effort in them.  I wrote this for viva voce delivery.  I don’t know that it deserves further work, deserves my trying to make it a full-on scholarly essay.  If any of you have the time and the curiosity to read this, let me know what you think.  Thanks in advance!

Philosophical Investigations and Three Kinds of Illusion

Staying Put

Here are a few lines from Fr. Stephen Freeman, addressing place and stability:

In monastic tradition, a monk makes four vows: poverty, chastity, obedience and stability. Most people are familiar with the first three but not with the fourth. In classical monastic practice it meant that a monk stayed put: he did not move from monastery to monastery. It was not a new idea. Before this vow was formalized in various Rules, there was already the saying from the Desert: “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”

I have been lucky to have been able to stay put.  Perhaps, if I had been more talented or more ambitious or both, I would not have stayed put.  Perhaps I would have aimed more seriously at career upward mobility.  But I was not more talented and was not and am not more ambitious.  So, here I am.  So, here I stay.  Here I hope to stay–until I stay put permanently, resting, I hope, in peace.

When I got my job at Auburn, my teacher, Lewis White Beck, was very pleased.  He grew up not far from here.  His brother still lived (in those days) just north up 85, in Westpoint, Ga.  (I used to visit him to hear stories of Lewis’ childhood.)  Beck counseled me about Auburn:  “Don’t go and leave.  Stay and make it the kind of place where you want to be.”  The philosophy department at Auburn has become that, although I deserve little of the credit.  But I do think that staying has made me more of the person I have wanted to be.  I do not mean I am not deeply flawed; of course I am, of course.  Still, staying put has been a revelator and tutor:  I have learnt something about fidelity and commitment, about what it means to work with others to build something bigger and better than the builders.  I have learnt something about being unknown and unremarked, and about first being restively reconciled to it and later accepting it and still later coming to desire it.  “Live hidden” is good advice.  (Beck was once asked by the NYTimes (if I remember correctly) if they could do a feature on him, a sort of Elder Philosopher at Home bit.  He declined, telling them that he was determined to enjoy “the beneficent obscurity of senectitude”.   –Is that a line from Gibbon?)  I guess I still have a few years before I enter my senectitude, but it is not too early for obscurity to be beneficent.

As I grow older, my classes and my students fascinate me more than ever before.  Philosophical problems incarnate are now my meditation.  Philosophical problems disincarnate no longer exert much pull on me.  Perhaps what I have come to appreciate more fully is that there is a strict specificity about philosophical problems–they exist only in a specific person and they can be grappled with only in conjunction with that person and they can be solved–in whatever sense they are solved–only by that person.  Where I am not that person, I can help or hurt (from the lectern, from the page); but I can only help or hurt; but I can no more solve the problem for him or her than I can be prudent for him or her.  Philosophical problems arise from and are finally only responsive to the living experience of a specific person.  I believe I have learnt that from Socrates–himself a master of staying put.

As Robert Frost once recommended:  “Don’t get converted.  Stay.”

Completed Draft of New Talk

Since I posted bits of this already–its first part yesterday and its last part a while back–I thought I would go ahead and post the whole thing.  I find writing talks for audiences that will include both philosophers and non-philosophers especially hard.  I wish I were better at it.

Philosophical Investigations and Three Kinds of Illusion:  A Talk

William Temple on Plato’s Vision of the Ideas

To us the Ideal Theory is myth, as it was to Plato in the later period.  Prof. Burnet wrote recently of the myths–“They have their roots in something older than philosophy, and possessing a vitality which is denied to philosophical systems.”  And just before he had pointed out that Aristotle, who begins with accepted facts and ends in myth, has always been a pillar of orthodoxy, while “most heresies come from Plato” because he insists on scientific treatment of ultimate questions.  This is no doubt true; but this distinction is rooted in another.  Here, as in all departments of human activity, the ultimate fact is temperament.  Aristotle was bound to produce a philosophy which would be a basis for orthodoxy, for, colossal as was his intellect–perhaps the greatest in history, –he was by temperament a churchwarden; and Plato was bound to be the philosophic father of many heretics because he was by temperament a Titan.  There is an inspiration in the spectacle of the old philosopher tearing in shreds his proudly built philosophy and beginning it all afresh.  But among his actual works what I have called “the old Ideal Theory,” which he himself rightly discarded, is worth more to mankind than the method of division elaborated in the Sophist and the Politicus…[This] may be of great scientific value, but [it imparts] no impulse.  The Ideal Theory, as held by Plato in his middle period, may be myth; but it is the outcome and expression of something more valuable than any specific doctrine, however true–of intellectual courage that refuses to allow any sphere to be set beyond the reach of knowledge, of mystic vision in which all that is mean and sordid disappears, and the temperamental fire without which no great achievement is possible in action or art.  —Mind 1908 (Vol 17 No 68)

From a Handout: Socrates as Midwife (Philosophical Questions 7)

[This was a class focused on Plato’s Theaetetus, Wittgenstein’s Blue Book and Bouwsma’s John Locke Lectures (The Flux).  The class was entitled, “The Flux”.  I taught it in the Spring of 1996.]

Back, now, to midwifery.

I recommend that Socrates be seen as logically clarifying thoughts.  His interlocutor says something–provides the datum clarificandum–and Socrates goes to work.  He pulls the interlocutor’s saying this way and that.  He compares it with first one sentence and then another.  All the while he’s asking his interlocutor to decide:  “Is this what you meant?  Could you have meant this?”  Sometimes the interlocutor keeps up for a while.

What is the midwifery comparison?  Call it an exhibitive theory of philosophizing. It shows us things we already know, but in a way that makes us see them afresh.

Socrates pictures his interlocutors as pregnant.  The have something inside them, although there is no way of knowing whether what’s inside them is going to be viable or still-born.  Socrates brings on labor pains.  He does this, I guess, by administering a potent medicine, by asking “What is x?”  Upon hearing the question, the interlocutor goes into labor.  The labor, like all labor, is painful.  (Try giving birth to Truth!)  Why is it painful?  Answering a question like “What is knowledge?” is a strenuous and hurtful mental business.

Let me try this without the midwifery idom.

Socrates knows how to ask questions.  The questions he knows how to ask are not of the “What’s his name?” or “What sort of architecture is that?” variety.  Such questions are not one that we are full of answers to, or think we are.  Sometimes we can answer them; sometimes we can’t.  As long as we aren’t taking a test or on Jeopardy, not being able to answer doesn’t matter much.  But when we can’t answer Socrates’ questions, it matters.  No test, no Jeopardy.  Socrates asks, “What is knowledge?” and we think we have to answer.  Why?  –We all know that we know what knowledge is.  That’s why!  We all talk about knowledge, use “know” or its cognates, all the time.

Theaetetus is a learner.  Theodorus is a teacher.  Surely, they know what knowledge is.

Socrates askes “What is knowledge?” and we have an answer in us.  But the answer won’t come quickly.  Augustine:  “If no one ask of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.”  So we huff and we puff and we try things out:  knowledge is perception.  Knowledge is true judgment.  None of these comes easily.  We have the feeling that we force each out.  The forcing hurts; it ought to be unnecessary.  Socrates helps, if that is what he chooses to do, by asking still more questions.  Each time we force out another answer, Socrates tests it.  If it won’t do, he shows us it won’t.  This is no fun, either.  After all that work, after all those words, no one wants to see an apparent new answer, apparently fresh to the world and apparently full of promise, turn out to be nonsense–a phantom answer.  Don’t rob us of our darling follies!  But Socrates is a pro.  He’s on a mission from God.  He show us.  Sometimes we go back to work forcing out another answer.  Sometimes we take our phantoms and go home.

Socrates says he can tell those who are full of answers from those who aren’t.  Those who aren’t he sends to Prodicus.  (Prodicus has an office in our English department.)  The others he helps.  They profit from this help, even if they manage no viable births.  How?

All this is strange.  Midwifery is no glamorous role for the philosopher.  He’s only around to help bring answers to light and to get rid of them, if they are monstrosities.  (Philosophy:  confusiasm over abstrocities.)  The role is thoroughly negative.  The philosopher is barren, has no answers of his own.  He can’t adopt.

No pitter-patter of little answer-feet in the philosopher’s house.

Plato on The What and the How (but Especially the How)

…[I]t is barely possible for knowledge to be engendered of an object naturally good, in a man naturally good; but if his nature is defective, as is that of most men, for the acquisition of knowledge and the so-called virtues, and if the qualities he has have been corrupted, then not even Lynceus could make such a man see.  In short, neither quickness of learning nor a good memory can make a man see when his nature is not akin to the object, for this knowledge never takes root in an alien nature; so that no man who is not naturally inclined and akin to justice and all other forms of excellence, even though he may be quick at learning and remembering this and that and other things, nor any man who though akin to justice, is slow at learning and forgetful, will ever attain the truth that is attainable about virtue.  Nor about vice, either, for these must be learned together, just as the truth and error about any part of being must be learned together, through long and earnest labor…Only when all of these [instruments]–names, definitions, and visual and other perception–have been rubbed against one another and tested, pupil and teacher asking and answering questions in good will and without envy–only then, when reason and knowledge are at the very extremity of human effort, can the illuminate the nature of any object.  (Seventh Letter, 334a-b)

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