Merton Paper, Intro

Here’re the first paragraphs of the introduction to my new Merton paper, “Under a Doom-shaped Sky, Or Hats off to the Human Condition”.  The paper discusses Merton’s book-length poem, Cables to the Ace.  There are a couple of qualifying footnotes to these paragraphs, but I have omitted them.

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Orienting

Worship is a norm of human life.  Merton knew this–knew what David Foster Wallace knew when he later commented:  “Everybody worships.”  Merton’s alternative title for Cables is Some Familiar Liturgies of Misunderstanding.  —Liturgies because human life lives up to its nature almost always already in this one respect:  it is worshipful.  The question is not typically whether it is worshipful, but what is worshipped, and even more, how it is worshipped–because here the how determines the what. Merton’s poem repeats the basic structure of liturgy; it is loosely composed of litanies, entrances, hymns, homilies, etc.  –Merton’s poem is familiar liturgies in two senses.  First, it is largely, almost entirely in the vernacular.  And, second, and more important, because what it liturgizes is modern life, our ordinary life (despite the fifty years between the poem’s publication and now).  Even those parts of the poem hard to understand create the nagging feel of a song you recognize but cannot name. The words of Cables are on the tips of our tongues. –The poem is familiar liturgies of misunderstanding because the liturgies are wrong–worshipful in the wrong way, worshipful of the wrong object.  And because they are, they are display the way our lives are down-destroyed instead of upbuilt by our life, our life with our language, a life we cannot avoid, even in silence.  These are liturgies of deformation, not of formation. They are the bad news; they are the tidings of unhope.

Let me start by dwelling on that last point.  Christian liturgy upbuilds. That is not all it does, of course.  Its intentional structure is worshipful, worshipful of the triune God.  Participants in it are thus ordered toward God, not toward themselves.  But in virtue of participating in what is ordered toward God, they are themselves ordered toward God, and such ordering is always upbuilding. Now, this is not two different intentional structures, a worshipful one and an upbuilding one.  It is one structure that has a particular effect on its participants in virtue of their participation.  To the extent that we enter into the how of the liturgy, we reach toward its what, its object, but participating in the how also changes our what, what we are.  Participant liturgical knowledge is connatural knowledge–and that is a bit of grammar.  We become what we know and know what we become:  blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

This is importantly reverse-true of what Merton takes to be our familiar, unChristian liturgies, our liturgies of misunderstanding. Cursed are the impure in heart, for they shall see UnGod, Gog or Magog, the False. Our participation in these liturgies results in our deformation.  We become what we ‘know’ and ‘know’ what we become.  Connatural ‘knowledge’, in this case, is damning ‘knowledge’. ‘Knowing’ nothing we hasten our own nothingness.

Terrence Malick on Heidegger on the World

Where Heidegger talks about “world” he will often appear to be talking about a pervasive interpretation or point of view which we bring to the things of the world. This, in any case, has been the view of many commentators. But there is little sense in speaking of “a point of view” here since precisely what Heidegger wants to indicate with the concept is that none other is possible. And there is no more sense in speaking of an interpretation when, instead of an interpretation, the “world” is meant to be that which can keep us from seeing, or force us to see, that what we have is one. Heidegger’s concept is quite like Kierkegaard’s “sphere of existence” and Wittgenstein’s “form of life,” and, as with them, it enters his inquiry only at its limits, when a problem moves out of his depth, or jurisdiction.

The Present Actual Situation of Philosophical Reflection

While philosophical reflection is temporally-historically so conditioned, its aim is the universal and eternal.  These however are, and are reflectively discernible, only in and through the individual and temporal.  Or better:  since the universal and individual, eternal and temporal, are not distinct things or opposites, but constitute reflectively characterizable aspects of the concrete situation of being, reflection must break forth out of non-reflective immersion in the present actual situation.  In so doing, it does not leave that situation but constitutes that altered mode of absorption within the concrete situation which attempts to elicit in conception the universal and eternal accessible to it.  –Richard Gotshalk, “Reflection and Seeing”

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.

Best,

 

Kelly

 

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.)

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