Feb 18 2018

We Will Always Think Together (Even If We Don’t Think Alike)

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, ItaliaWe Will Always Think Together (Even If We Don’t Think Alike):
Or, Relying on the Resemblance of Others to Think for Ourselves

catena: n. A string or series of extracts from the writings of the fathers, forming a commentary on some portion of Scripture; also, a chronological series of extracts to prove the existence of a continuous tradition on some point of doctrine. (Oxford English Dictionary)

As I have previously done here and here, what follows is another cantena of thoughts supplementing Alan Jacobs’s How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (2017) and his point of how it is impossible to think for ourselves because we always rely on the thinking of others in order to think for ourselves.

However, the further I plod along in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), which Jacobs refers to (sometimes in agreement, sometimes not), the more I suspect that the quotations below, as well as those in my previous posts, may not compare as well with Jacobs’s point as I initially thought. They may not because I may be falling for resemblance bias, for all the quotations I give are based on my limited recent reading––which itself might constitute a combination of what Kahneman calls the availability and priming heuristics.[1]

In other words, instead of relying on the words of others so that I can understand Jacobs’s book, perhaps I’m really just relying on the resemblance of the words of others as they compare to Jacobs. Either way, here it goes:


At age 33, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1808–1882) recognized: “I suppose my friends have some relation to my mind.”[2]

At age 37, Walter Kaufmann (1921–1980) taught that our convictions are worthless until we encounter others who dare challenge our convictions:

Ultimate convictions are often inconsistent and can be refuted. They cannot be proved. But they can be responsible or irresponsible. They are irresponsible if they are arbitrary and blind. They are responsible if they have grown out of encounter after encounter. And in the end we can only ask others to expose themselves to the same encounters—and, if after having done this they do not agree with us, expose ourselves to their criticisms. [3]

At age 44, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick (1928–1999) knew that, even the artist-as-author must rely on others to render creation. The working artist cannot be isolated but must come into communion and let the surrounding community contribute to the work at hand:

The reality of the final moment, just before shooting, is so powerful that all previous analysis must yield before the impressions you receive under these circumstance, and unless you use this feedback [of the cast and crew on the set] to your positive advantage, unless you adjust to it, adapt to it and accept the sometimes terrifying weaknesses it can expose, you can never realize the most out of your film…. If the camera operator spoils a shot, it can be done again. The thing that can never be changed, and the thing that is the make or break for a picture, are those few hours you spend alone in the actual place with the actors, with the crew outside drinking their tea.[4]

At age 66, Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) explained how Hegel got it wrong: that we cannot think in pure isolation:

No one has fought with more determination against the particular, the eternal stumbling block of thinking, the undisputable thereness of objects that no thought can reach or explain. The highest function of philosophy, according to Hegel, is to eliminate the contingent, and all particulars, everything that exists, are contingent by definition. Philosophy deals with the particulars as parts of a whole, and the whole is the system, a product of speculative thought. This whole, scientifically speaking, can never be more than a plausible hypothesis, which by integrating every particular into an all-comprehensive thought transforms them all into thought-things and thus eliminates their most scandalous property, their realness, together with their contingency. It was Hegel who declared that “The time has come for the elevation of philosophy to a science,” and who wished to transform philo-sophy, the mere love of wisdom, into wisdom, Sophia. In this way he succeeded in persuading himself that “to think is to act”––which this most solitary occupation can never do, since we can act only “in concert,” in company and agreement with our peers, hence in an existential situation that effectively prevents thinking.[5]

At age 77, Daniel Kahneman shared in Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011):

Many of us spontaneously anticipate how friends and colleagues will evaluate our choices; the quality and content of these anticipated judgments therefore matters…. The premise of this book is that it is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own.[6]



[1] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011). For Kahneman, “systematic errors are known as biases” (3–4), while “the reliance on the ease of memory search” is called “the availability heuristic,” (7). “They were primed to find flaws, and this is exactly what they found,” (58) is one of Kahneman’s examples of the priming heuristic.

[2] Emerson, Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, eds. William H. Gilman et al, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1960–82). Vol. V (1835–1838), October 19, 1836, Journal B, p. 223.

[3] Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1958) 408.

[4] Strick and Houston, “Modern Times: an Interview with Stanley Kubrick,” Sight and Sound, 41 (Spring 1972) quoted from Stanley Kubrick Interviews, ed. Gene D. Phillips, (Jackson, MS: Mississippi University Press, 2001) 134.

[5] Arendt, The Life of the Mind, (1971), ed. Mary McCarthy (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1978), Volume I. Thinking 89–90.

[6] Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow 3, 28.

Feb 13 2018

Seating at Dinner

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Seating at Dinner
(According to Martha Nussbaum and Larry McMurtry)

First, from Martha:

The domain of life that can be called the “Middle Realm,” a realm in which much of our daily life is spent: in dealings with strangers, business associates, employers and employees, casual acquaintances, in short people with whom we are not involved in relations of intimacy and deep trust, but who are also people and not legal and governmental institutions. A great deal of anger is generated in this realm, over slights to reputation and honor, insults or fantasized insults, and some genuinely harmful and awful behavior. Seneca’s On Anger depicts a typical Roman’s day as a minefield. Go to a neighbor’s house and you are greeted by a surly doorman who speaks rudely to you. Go to a dinner party and you discover that the host has seated you at a place at the table that others will view as insulting. And on it goes. [1]

And from Larry:

I wasn’t good at galas, either, being inexpert in the delicate metropolitan matter of placement. At my second [PEN] gala, held downtown in the old Customs House, both Susan Sontag and Peter Jennings (the late ABC anchor) left because they were seated with people who had no idea who they were. Such, I suppose, is the Big Time. Towering figures such as Susan Sontag and Peter Jennings must be seated next to people who want to sit beneath a tower. What could be more simple?[2]

Interior of a restaurant (1887)
by Vincent van Gogh (Wikicommons)



[1] Nussbaum, Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice, (New York, NY: Oxford UP, 2016) 138.

[2] McMurtry, Literary Life: a Second Memoir, (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2009) 132.

Feb 12 2018

Why Science Must Rely on Poetry

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Why Science Must Rely on Poetry

Samuel Matlack’s essay “Quantum Poetics: Why physics can’t get rid of metaphor” in The New Atlantis (Summer/Fall 2017) covers all the right bases (via Vico, Borges, and George Steiner among others) of how science relies on language in order to explain itself.

Yet language (particularly metaphor and idiom) are abstract in the very ways science seeks to be precise. This is why, Matlack, suggests:

It is easier to translate between Chinese and English — both express human experience, the vast majority of which is shared — than it is to translate advanced mathematics into a spoken language, because the world that mathematics expresses is theoretical and for the most part not available to our lived experience.

And that reminded me of something I’d recently read from Hannah Arendt (1906–1975):

These observations on the interconnection of language and thought, which make us suspect that no speechless thought can exist, obviously do not apply to civilizations where the written sign rather than the spoken word is decisive and where, consequently, thinking itself is not soundless speech but mental dealing with images. This is notably true of China…. There “the power of words is supported by the power of the written sign, the image,” and not the other way round, as in the alphabetic languages, where script is thought of as secondary, no more than an agreed-upon set of symbols. For the Chinese, every sign makes visible what we would call a concept or an essence—Confucius is reported to have said that the Chinese sign for “dog” is the perfect image of dog as such, whereas in our understanding “no image could ever be adequate to the concept” of dog in general. “It would never attain that universality of the concept which renders it valid of all” dogs.[1]

And what I had read from Arendt reminded me of something I’d previously read in Vico:

All these observations prove that human nature determined the creation of poetic style before prose style, just as human nature determined the creation of mythical and imaginative universals before rational and philosophical universals, which were the product of discourse in prose. For after the poets had formed poetic speech by combining universal ideas, the nations formed prose speech by contracting these poetic combinations into single words, as if into general categories. Take for example the poetic sentence ‘My blood boils in my heart’, which expresses a natural, eternal, and universal property of humankind. They took the notions of blood, boiling, and heart, and formed them into a single word, or general category: anger, which is called stomachos in Greek, ira in Latin, and collera in Italian. By the same steps, hieroglyphs and heroic emblems were reduced to a few vernacular letters, as general types to which countless different articulate sounds could be assigned. This process required the utmost ingenuity; and the use of such general words and letters rendered people’s minds more agile and more capable of abstraction. This in turn prepared the way for the philosophers, who formulated intelligible general categories. This offers us a small piece of the history of human thought, from which we see the origins of letters could only be traced in the same breath with the origin of languages![2]

But mostly, Matlack’s essay reminded me of ideas found in the works of Owen Barfield (1898–1997), first suggested to me in an essay by his buddy C. S. Lewis (1898–1963):

[Michel] Bréal [(1832–1915)] in his Semantics often spoke in metaphorical, that is consciously, rhetorically, metaphorical language, of language itself. Messrs. Ogden and Richards in The Meaning of Meaning took Bréal to task on the ground that “it is impossible thus to handle a scientific subject in metaphorical terms.” Barfield in his Poetic Diction retorted that Ogden and Richards were, as a matter of fact, just as metaphorical as Bréal. They had forgotten, he complained, that all language has a figurative origin and that the “scientific” terms on which they piqued themselves––words like organism, stimulus, reference—were not miraculously exempt. On the contrary, he maintained, “these authors who professed to eschew figurative expressions were really confining themselves to one very old kind of figure; they were rigid under the spell of those verbal ghosts of the physical sciences which today make up practically the whole meaning-system of so many European minds.”[3]

And let’s examine a little more from Barfield on how, whether in science or social life, we think by means of words:

We think by means of words, and we have to use the same ones for so many different thoughts that as soon as new meanings have entered into one set, they creep into all our theories and begin to mould our whole cosmos; and from the theories they pass into more words, and so into our lives and institutions.[4]

The new meaning becomes a means to distort ends, for: “the creative imagination latent in the word itself.” [5] Barfield goes on to point out that the poet makes the terms; the logician/scientist uses the terms:

Thus, the poet’s relation to terms is that of maker. And it is in this making of terms—whether the results are to be durable or fleeting—that we can divine the very poetic itself.… The use of them is left to the Logician, who, in his endeavor to keep them steady and thus fit them to his laws, is continually seeking to reduce their meaning. I say seeking to do so, because logic is essentially a compromise. He could only evolve a language, whose propositions would really obey the laws of thought by eliminating meaning altogether. But he compromises before this zero-point is reached.[6]

For Barfield science and poetry are not all that different:

It has already been emphasized that the rational principle must be strongly developed in the great poet. Is it necessary to add to this that the scientist, if he as ‘discovered’ anything, must also have discovered it by the right interaction of the rational and poetic principles? Really, there is no distinction between Poetry and Science, as kinds of knowing, at all. There is only a distinction between bad poetry and bad science.[7]



[1] Arendt, The Life of the Mind, (1971) (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1978), Volume I. Thinking 100.

[2] Vico, [The Third] New Science: Principles of the New Science Concerning the Common Nature of Nations, trans. David Marsh, (New York, NY: Penguin 1999), II, § 2, v, [¶ 460], p. 189.

[3] Lewis, “Bulspels and Flalansferes,” Rehabilitations and Other Essays (London: Oxford UP, 1939) quoted from The Importance of Language, ed. Max Black (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962) 36.

[4] Barfield, History in English Words, (New York, NY: George H. Doran Co., 1926) 173.

[5] Barfield, Poetic Diction: a Study in Meaning, (1928), Third Edition, (Middleton, CN: Wesleyan UP, 1973) 37.

[6] Barfield, Poetic Diction: a Study in Meaning 135–36.

[7] Barfield, Poetic Diction: a Study in Meaning 145–46.

Jan 30 2018

Community and the Lack of Originality

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Relying on Others to Define Reality for Ourselves – Part III of III

(Read Part I here, and Part II here)

If we can’t think without others, if we can’t conceive of reality without community, then it follows that there is often no such thing as originality, as Goethe once observed (via Walter Kaufmann (1921–1980)):

Goethe voiced the same insight in his own, characteristically more positive manner: “All that is clever has already been thought; one must only try to think it once more.”[1]

Director Stanley Kubrick (1928–1999) used to say the same thing about each camera shot for each scene in a movie: every shot has already been done. The goal, therefore, is to make the shot a little better than what has been done before. Or, as Gregory Bateson (1904–1980) once put it: “Without the random, there can be no new thing.”[2]

And after we communed with the community, we should step away and contemplate what that communion accomplished. As Plutarch puts it:

[The student,] In making his examination and forming his judgement of the lecture he should begin with himself and his own state of mind, endeavouring to estimate whether any one of his emotions has become less intense, whether any one of his troubles weighs less heavily upon him, whether his confidence and his high purpose have become firmly rooted, whether he has acquired enthusiasm for virtue and goodness. As a matter of course, when he rises to leave the barber’s shop, he stands by the mirror and feels his head, examining the cut of his hair and the difference made by its trimming; so on his way home from a lecture or an academic exercise, it would be a shame not to direct his gaze forthwith upon himself and to note carefully his own spirit, whether it has put from it any of its encumbrances and superfluities, and has become lighter and more cheerful.[3]

And Tolstoy adds:

When you are in company, do not forget what you have found out when you were thinking in solitude; and when you are meditating in solitude, think about what you found out by communicating with other people. [4]

Beautiful wall of old books…📚📚📚#reading #igreads #dustyatticrarebooks

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[1] Walter Kaufmann, “Goethe and the History of Ideas,” Journal of the History of Ideas 10 (October, 1949): 503–16 at 503–04 quoting Goethe’s Maximen und Reflexionen.

[2] Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, (New York, NY: Dutton, 1979) 147.

[3] Plutarch, Morales. Vol. I, trans. Frank Cole Babbitt, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP; London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1927) “On Listening to Lectures” 8, p. 227.

[4] Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom, trans. Peter Sekirin, (New York, NY: Scribner, 1997) 100.

Jan 30 2018

“We” Think; Therefore, “I” Am

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Relying on Others to Define Reality for Ourselves – Part II of III

We have an interesting linguistic trap here, one created by centuries of human self-regard. By using a different pronoun to enquire about the identity of people rather than of things—who, instead of what—we introduce an imaginary metaphysical difference.
Why not ask “What are we? What am I
?”–Riccardo Manzotti

According to Count Tolstoy (1828–1910), we live for ourselves only when we live for others. We only learn when we serve to teach others.[1] Compare Hannah Arendt (1906–1975), who follows Peirce:

Reality in a world of appearances is first of all characterized by “standing still and remaining” the same long enough to become an object for acknowledgement and recognition by a subject. Husserl’s basic and greatest discovery takes up in exhaustive detail the intentionality of all acts of consciousness, that is, the fact that no subjective act is ever without an object: though the seen tree may be an illusion, for the act of seeing it is an object nevertheless; though the dreamt-of landscape is visible only to the dreamer, it is the object of his dream. Objectivity is built into the very subjectivity of consciousness by virtue of intentionality. Conversely and with the same justness, one may speak of the intentionality of appearances and their built-in subjectivity. All objects because they appear indicate a subject, and, just as every subjective act has its intentional object, so every appearing object has its intentional subject. In Portmann’s words, every appearance is a “conveyance for receivers” (a Sendung für Empfangsapparate). Whatever appears is meant for a perceiver, a potential subject no less inherent in all objectivity than a potential object is inherent in the subjectivity of every intentional act.

That appearance always demands spectators and thus implies an at least potential recognition and acknowledgement has far-reaching consequences for what we, appearing beings in a world of appearances, understand by reality, our own as well as that of the world. In both cases, our “perceptual faith,” as Merleau-Ponty has called it, our certainty that what we perceive has an existence independent of the act of perceiving, depends entirely on the object’s also appearing as such to others and being acknowledged by them. Without this tacit acknowledgment by others we would not even be able to put faith in the way we appear to ourselves.[2]

Compare Arendt’s line: “That appearance always demands spectators” to a pair of observations from the Elizabethan playwrights:

“For though the most be players, some must be spectators.”

––Ben Jonson

“All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players….”

––Will Shakespeare

More recently, Charles Taylor has observed:

To transform society according to a new principle of legitimacy, we have to have a repertory that includes ways of meeting this principle. This requirement can be broken down into two facets: (1) the actors have to know what to do, have to have practices in their repertory that put the new order into effect; and (2) the ensemble of actors have to agree on what these practices are. [3]

Tolstoy, meanwhile, goes so far to say that if the community cannot easily understand a work of creation, then it doesn’t count as a work of art:

It cannot be said that the majority of people lack the taste to appreciate the highest works of art. The majority understand and have always understood what we, too, consider the highest art: the artistically simple narratives of the Bible, the Gospel parables, folk legends, fairy tales, folk songs are understood by everyone. Why is it that the majority suddenly lost the ability to understand the highest of our art?[4]

(Read Part I here  and Part III here)

Erddig Hall Library….📚📚📚#reading #igreads #dustyatticrarebooks

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[1] Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom, trans. Peter Sekirin, (New York, NY: Scribner, 1997) 123.

[2] Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, (1971) (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1978), Volume I. Thinking 45–46.

[3] Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries, (Durham, SC: Duke University Press, 2004) 115.

[4] Tolstoy, Что такое искусство?/Chto takoye iskusstvo? What is Art? (1897), trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, (New York, NY: Penguin, 1995) X, 80.

Jan 30 2018

Lean on Me (When You’re Not Wrong)

Relying on Others to Define Reality for Ourselves – Part I of III

It’s a dangerous business to try and impose one’s view of things on others.

Padma: if you’re a little uncertain of my reliability, well, a little uncertainty is no bad thing. Cocksure men do terrible deeds. Women, too. ––Salman Rushdie, Midnights Children (1981)[1]

As I’ve previously written, one of the key themes running through Professor Alan Jacobs’s book How to Think (2017) is how we must come to grips that our individuality is paradoxically based on how those around us end up defining each of us as individuals.

For C. S. Peirce (1839–1914), all reality, including our thoughts on reality, begins with our reliance on others:

As what anything really is, is what it may finally come to be known to be in the ideal state of complete information, so that reality depends on the ultimate decision of the community; so thought is what it is, only by virtue of its addressing a future thought which is in its value as thought identical with it, though more developed. In this way, the existence of thought now depends on what is to be hereafter; so that it has only a potential existence, dependent on the future thought of the community….

For Peirce, the individual is but a negation—and when two individuals negate each other’s individuality, they affirm community:

The individual man, since his separate existence is manifested only by ignorance and error, so far as he is anything apart from his fellows, and from what he and they are to be, is only a negation. This is man….”[2]

A century before the phrase “imagined communities” was popularized by Benedict Anderson (1936–2015) as a useful way to describe nationalism, Peirce recognized:

The care that men have for what is to happen after they are dead, cannot be selfish. And finally and chiefly, the constant use of the word “we”––as when we speak of our possessions on the Pacific––our destiny as a republic––in cases in which no personal interests at all are involved, show conclusively that men do not make their personal interests their only ones, and therefore may, at least, subordinate them to the interests of the community.

But just the revelation of the possibility of this complete self-sacrifice in man, and the belief in its saving power, will serve to redeem the logicality of all men. For he who recognizes the logical necessity of complete self-identification of one’s own interests with those of the community, and its potential existence in man, even if he has it not himself, will perceive that only the inferences of that man who has it are logical, and so views his own inferences as being valid only so far as they would be accepted by that man. But so far as he has this belief, he becomes identified with that man. And that ideal perfection of knowledge by which we have seen that reality is constituted must thus belong to a community in which this identification is complete…. [3]

This “ideal perfection of knowledge by which we have seen that reality is constituted” is also, for Peirce, the method of science:

Such is the method of science. Its fundamental hypothesis, restated in more familiar language, is this: There are Real things, whose characters are entirely independent of our opinions about them; those Reals affect our senses according to regular laws, and, though our sensations are as different as are our relations to the objects, yet, by taking advantage of the laws of perception, we can ascertain by reasoning how things really and truly are; and any man, if he have sufficient experience and he reason enough about it, will be led to the one True conclusion. The new conception here involved is that of Reality….[4]

Even if the community renders something other communities think to be immoral (such as separate public drinking fountains for separate ethnicities), it is nonetheless part of reality, at least until a majority in the community agree to something different. Community creates the facts of reality by agreeing with what they are:

The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real. That is the way I would explain reality….[5]

(Read Part II here, and Part III here)



[1] Salman Rushdie, Midnights Children, (New York, NY: Knopf, 1981. Random House Paperbacks, 2006) II, “Alpha and Omega” 243.

[2] Peirce, “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy 2 (1868): 140–57.

[3] Peirce, “Ground of Validity of the Laws of Logic: Further Consequences of Four Incapacities,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy 2 (1869): 193–208.

[4] Peirce, “The Fixation of Belief,” Popular Science Monthly 12 (November 1877): 1–15.

[5] Peirce, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” Popular Science Monthly 12 (January 1878): 286–302.

Jan 1 2018

How We Should Rely on Others to Think for Ourselves (According to Machiavelli & Alan Jacobs)

porticos in Bologna, Italia

How We Should Rely on Others to Think for Ourselves
(According to Machiavelli and Alan Jacobs)

“Working toward the truth is one of life’s great adventures.”

––Alan Jacobs

“Don’t regard a hesitant assertion as an assertion of hesitancy.”


The thirty-fifth chapter to the third book of Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy is entitled:

“When Dangers Are Borne in Making Oneself Head in Counseling a Thing; and the More It Has of the Extraordinary, the Greater Are the Dangers Incurred in It.”[2]

Machiavelli’s chapter title gets at a point Alan Jacobs repeats often in How to Think: a Survival Guide in a World at Odds (2017): that it is impossible for one to think for oneself. In fact, one must rely on others in order to think for oneself, for “the problem of belonging and not-belonging, affiliation and separation, is central to the task of learning how to think” (p. 54).

Both Machiavelli and Jacobs focus on the perils of counsel. Now someone might say, “So what? I’m not a counselor,” but I say, that we (as readers and writers) are participating in the public sphere; therefore, following Charles Taylor, I say we (as readers and writers) are, in some sense, counseling the government. In a republic, the political blogger/writer/commenter always potentially advises her authorities via her activities in the public sphere. Donald Trump, for example, could conceivably read something I tweet and act on it.[3]

Yet, according to Machiavelli, dispensing advice is always a gamble, for hesitant assertions are mistakenly interpreted as assertions of hesitancy:

Thus it is a very certain thing that those who counsel a republic and those who counsel a prince are placed in these straits: if they do not counsel without hesitation the things that appear to them useful—either for the city or for the prince—they fail in their office; if they do counsel them, they enter into danger of life and state, since all men are blind in this, in judging good and bad counsel by the end. (Discourses III, xxxv)

In either a principality or a republic bad advice can be fatal for the dispenser. Yet, as Machiavelli points out, bad advice is not judged on the accuracy of its contents, but on whether the results of that advice lead to something satisfactory for the ruling authorities receiving the advice.

Machiavelli writes that what counselors and advisors need (and by writing this he is actually advising readers!) is moderation:

Thinking over in what mode they [those who counsel] can escape either this infamy or this danger, I do not see any other way for it but to take things moderately, and not to seize upon any of them for one’s own enterprise, and to give one’s opinion without passion and defend it without passion, with modesty, so that if the city or the prince follows it, it follows voluntarily, and it does not appear to enter upon it drawn by your importunity. (Discourses III, xxxv)

Following Roger Scuton, Jacobs writes in How to Think how we, as advisors and counselors to the government (as well as to our friends and family and strangers) in the public sphere, must “negotiate our posture toward the other” (p. 83). We must “avoid displaying the zeal that’s all too commonly characteristic of the convert,” (pp. 149–50) because “the real outgroup, for us, is the person next door” (p. 72)—that is, the person who votes differently than we do, thinks differently than we do, etc. For as the author known as Kohelet writes:

Also take no heed unto all words that are spoken; lest thou hear thy servant curse thee:
For oftentimes also thine own heart knoweth that thou thyself likewise hast cursed others. (Ecclesiastes 7:21–22)

To defend one’s opinion with moderation rather than passion is certainly something the twenty-first century public sphere could use more of, particularly when political matters are discussed. But risks remain nonetheless. Jacobs warns how “sheer animus … disables our ethical and our practical judgment” (p. 75). And Machiavelli has observed:

When you do thus, it is not reasonable that a prince and a people wish you ill for your counsel, since it was not followed against the wish of many—for one bears danger where many have contradicted, who then at the unhappy end concur to bring you to ruin. (Discourses III, xxxv)

Machiavelli also warns of those who contradict regularly, fully aware that they contradict without hesitation, will bring a countering writer-advisor to ruin, unless that countering writer-advisor be modest and moderate in their countering:

And if in this case one lacks the glory that is acquired in being alone against many to counsel a thing when it has a good end, there are two goods in the comparison: first, in the lack of danger; second, that if you counsel a thing modestly, and because of the contradiction your counsel is not taken, and by the counsel of someone else some ruin follows, very great glory redounds to you. (Discourses III, xxxv)

Or, as Jacobs writes, “The genuine community is open to thinking and questioning, so long as those thoughts and questions come from people of goodwill,” (p. 59), which sounds not unlike an observation Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) once made:

Unless we make ourselves hermits, we shall necessarily influence each other’s opinions; so that the problem becomes how to fix [stabilize] belief, not in the individual merely, but in the community.[4]



[1] Alan Jacobs, How to Think: a Survival Guide in a World at Odds, (New York, NY: Currency Books, 2017) 150; Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. by G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, (London: Blackwell, Revised fourth edition, 2009) p. 202.

[2] Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, translated by Harvey C. Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[3] According to Taylor:

This space is a public sphere in the sense I’m using it here. That a conclusion “counts as” public opinion reflects the fact that a public sphere can exist only if it is imagined as such. Unless all the dispersed discussions are seen by their participants as linked in one great exchange, there can be no sense of their upshot as public opinion. This doesn’t mean that imagination is all-powerful. There are objective conditions: internal, for instance, that the fragmentary local discussions interrefer [sic]; and external, that is, there must be printed materials, circulating from a plurality of independent sources, for there to be bases of what can be seen as a common discussion…. (Modern Social Imaginaries, (Durham, SC: Duke University Press, 2004) p. 85)

The public sphere is the locus of a discussion potentially engaging everyone (although in the eighteenth century the claim was only to involve the educated or “enlightened” minority) in which the society can come to a common mind about important matters. This common mind is a reflective view, emerging from critical debate, and not just a summation of whatever views happen to be held in the population. As a consequence it has a normative status: government ought to listen to it. There were two reasons for this, of which one tended to gain ground and ultimately swallow up the other. The first is, that this opinion is likely to be enlightened, and hence government would be well advised to follow it…. The second reason emerges with the view that the people are sovereign. Government is then not only wise to follow opinion; it is morally bound to do so…. (A Secular Age, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007) 188, 189)

It is a space of discussion which is self-consciously seen as being outside power. It is supposed to be listened to by power, but it is not itself an exercise of power. It’s in this sense extra-political status is crucial. As we shall see below, it links the public sphere with other facts of modern society which also are seen as essentially extra-political. The extra-political status is not just defined negatively, as a lack of power. It is also seen positively: just because public opinion is not an exercise of power, it can be ideally disengaged from both partisan spirit and rational. (A Secular Age 189–90)

[4] Peirce, “The Fixation of Belief,” Popular Science Monthly, 12 (November, 1877): 1–15.

Dec 27 2017

11 Books I Read in 2017 (Placed in 7 Categories)

book spines

11 Books I Read in 2017 (Placed in 7 Categories)

Books I probably shouldve already read a long time ago but somehow hadnt: For this category, I call it a tie between the Scotsman Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s (1859–1930) Study in Scarlet (1887), which introduces the world to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and the Anglo-Irishman Bram Stoker’s (1847–1912) Dracula (1897), which was certainly not the first book that introduced the world to vampires, but a staple of twentieth-century popular culture in the West nonetheless.

Best autobiography: ‘Tis Herself (2004) by actress Maureen O’Hara (1920–2015)––someone whose tough spirit, terrific behind-the-scenes anecdotes from the classic Hollywood era, and her proud (but also modest) part in promoting Irish independence made the telling of her own life stand out when compared to some other autobiographies I read this year, such as those by Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) and Giambattista Vico (1668–1744). Michael Morton’s Getting Life: an Innocent Man’s 25-Year Journey from Prison to Peace (2014) was a powerful telling of justice (and its opposite) occurring in Central Texas, and was a close second behind Miss O’Hara.

Most useful book of the year: Baylor University’s Distinguished Professor of Humanities, Allan Jacobs’ How to Think: a Survival Guide for a World at Odds (2017) is a book I will be keeping within reach and often returning to, much like H. W. Fowler’s (1858–1933) Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926, 1965), or University of Texas English professor emeritus John R. Trimble’s Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing (1975, 2000). Jacobs’ book can, at times, be just as casual and amusing as Fowler can, but Jacobs is especially good at taking personal anecdotes and demonstrating that he has already applied to his own life the lessons he’s now trying to impart to readers in this book. All authors should be so self-applicable.

Most anticipated book of the year: this would be Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: a Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (2017). Dreher is a prolific blogger at The American Conservative, someone whom I’ve read weekly (if not daily) for the past 4–5 years. Like my observation of Jacobs, Dreher is also especially good at taking his own life situations and applying them to whatever it is he’s writing about. The Benedict Option, however, is a departure from Dreher’s typically personal style of writing. It is much more theoretical than his previous books, much more detached than even his particular blog posts on the Benedict Option that led up to him writing the present book. Dreher’s book is certainly not an indictment of the present-day United States, though it may be a lamentation.

2017 as the year for reading history: In the Benedict Option Dreher writes:

I am a college-educated American. In all my years of formal schooling, I never read Plato or Aristotle, Homer or Virgil. I knew nothing of Greek and Roman history and barely grasped the meaning of the Middle Ages. Dante was a stranger to me, and so was Shakespeare (p. 154).

I recognize some of this as being true for me as well, particularly with respect to history. So this year I got through Herodotus’ (~484–425 BC) Histories, Thucydides’ (460–400 BC) History of the Peloponnesian War, and Livy’s (~64– ~17 AD) History of Rome (books I–X, XXI–XXX). I will say reading these have already helped me find things to write about and get published as I did this year with my essays “Custom Versus Culture: a Modest Distinction” by Real Clear News of Chicago and “Between History and Myth in Austin, Texas” in The Fortnightly Review of London.

Best reread of the year: former professor of philosophy at Princeton, Walter Kaufmann’s (1921–1980) Critique of Religion and Philosophy (1958, 1972) is a tour de force spanning all across the humanities. I found it much more difficult reading the second time, probably because I forced myself to read it at a much slower pace than I did about 5 years ago. I’m a better reader now than I was then, but there’re parts to Kaufmann’s Critique that still seem to slag, particularly the digressions on Aquinas and Niebuhr.

Most difficult book of the year: Certainly the winner of this category belongs to the Max Weber (1864–1920) anthology, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (1945), trans. by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, (New York, NY: Oxford UP, 1958)––a long book with a long biographical introduction to Weber––a book that requires many notes to be taken, reread, and thoroughly pondered before proceeding further. It was Charles Taylor’s titanic A Secular Age (2007) that turned me on to this collection of Weber’s work. I started Taylor in about June, and probably won’t finish until this time next year.

Dec 26 2017

14 Different Ways to Think About Books

Western book stack

14 Different Ways to Think About Books:
Or, Do Good Questions Make Good Books?

I’ve been thinking about Kevin Kelly’s book The InevitableUnderstanding the 12 Technological Forces that Will Shape Our Future (2016) where toward the end of his rather interesting book he lists some provoking questions. Their provocation led my thinking to take an initiative. So I went ahead and transposed the word “book” for the word “question” in this quotation from Kelly:

  1. A good [book] is not concerned with a correct answer.

  2. A good [book] cannot be answered immediately.

  3. A good [book] challenges existing answers.

  4. A good [book] is one you badly want answered once you hear it, but had no inkling you cared before it was asked.

  5. A good [book] creates new territory of thinking.

  6. A good [book] reframes its own answers.

  7. A good [book] is the seed of innovation in science, technology, art, politics, and business.

  8. A good [book] is a probe, a what-if scenario.

  9. A good [book] skirts on the edge of what is known and not known, neither silly nor obvious.

  10. A good [book] cannot be predicted.

  11. A good [book] will be the sign of an educated mind.

  12. A good [book] is one that generates many other good questions.

  13. A good [book] may be the last job a machine will learn to do.

  14. A good [book] is what humans are for. [1]

I think the transposition works well for intriguing lines of thoughts and, ironically enough, questions, except perhaps for no. 14. If the statement is understood as a good book is made for humans, I see no problem. But if the statement means humans are made for good books, I feel I’m on shakier ground. Yet here I recall Owen Barfield (1898-1997) once recalling Oscar Wilde (1854-1900):

Oscar Wilde’s mot—that men are made by books rather than books by men—was certainly not pure nonsense; there is a very real sense, humiliating as it may seem, in which what we generally venture to call our feelings are really Shakespeare’s ‘meaning’. [2]



[1] Kelly, The Inevitable, (New York, NY: Penguin, 2016) 288–89.

[2] Barfield, Poetic Diction: a Study in Meaning, (London: Faber & Gwyer, 1928. Third Edition. Middleton, CN: Wesleyan UP, 1973) 136–37.

Dec 15 2017

How to Lose Friends & Influence Over People: Write about Race (Part III of III)

porticos in Bologna, Italia

How to Lose Friends & Influence Over People:
Write about Race (Part III of III)

Toward Some Solutions to the Political Problem of Writing about Race while Being Aware of One’s Own Race

Part III.

In Part I, I brought up the four questions of Al-farabi (872–950 AD) to ask for any political situation: What, How, What from, What for? And in Part II, I applied those questions to four recent articles discussing and/or involving the problem of writing about race. If Al-farabi’s fourth question, What for?, were properly applied, it would seek to find the end and final purpose for why each writer wrote what they did. “The real question in this debate,” answers Jess Row, “couldn’t be more fundamental: What are novels for, and what are novelists for?” Row insists that writers (particularly white fiction writers) write in ways and on topics that are politically relevant, because the denial that one’s art is politically relevant exposes the ignorance of the artist’s privileged place in culture, an ignorance that further represses others from partaking in that privilege.

Wesley Yang says the reason for writing about race is because: “Part of responding to the coalition of white resentment from which the [alt-right] posters emerged in ways that stanches rather than feeds its growth, then, means taking stock of the way our own thinking has been affected by polarizing memes.”

Aaron Mak wrote about race because he wants to solidify “the cooperation necessary between people of color to overcome systemic racism” without “contorting” one’s “identity” to new bureaucratic systems that establish new categories of racism. For as the Freedom Rider founder James Farmer (1920–1999) once pointed out, racism is inevitably bureaucratic. [1]

Andy Ngo wrote about race because “The lack of any ideological counterpoise has created a vacuum where ideas have no mechanism or incentive for moderation.” For Ngo, such a vacuum needs to be (ideally) eliminated, but at the very least, penetrated by asking hard questions (such as asking When is racism disguised as antiracism?). These hard questions penetrate because they modulate the discussion rather than amplify its intensity.

I have no original ideas to add to their proposed solutions. I can only thumb through my notes, find some seemingly relevant quotations—some sidelights that might shine toward some solutions to the political problem of writing about race and being aware of one’s own race while writing:

For Susan Sontag (1933–2004), translation helps the writer understand the race that the writer is not:

Literary translation, I think, is preeminently an ethical task, and one that mirrors and duplicates the role of literature itself, which is to extend our sympathies; to educate the heart and mind; to create inwardness; to secure and deepen the awareness (with all its consequences) that other people, people different from us, really do exist. [2]

For Wendell Berry (1934–), imagination helps the writer understand the race that the writer is not:

By imagination I do not mean the ability to make things up or to make a realistic copy. I mean the ability to make real to oneself the life of one’s place or the life of an enemy—and therein, I believe, is implied, imagination in the highest sense.[3]

For Harry Crews (1935–2012), creativity (artifice) helps the writer understand the race that the writer is not:

The only way to deal with the real world was [and is] to challenge it with one of your own making.[4]



[1] In Farmer’s words:

Curiously, by a quirk of New York state laws, my first daughter’s birth certificate lists her as a Negro and the same one is classified as white. When Tami was born, a child of mixed marriage was Negro, and when Abbey was born, a child took its race from the mother. (Lay Bare the Heart: an Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement, (Fort Worth, TX: Texas Christian University Press, 1985) 214)

[2] Sontag, At the Same Time, edited by Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump. (New York, NY: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007) “The Word of India” 177. Yet, as Benedict Anderson (1936–2015) once observed:

Proverbially, a writer loses his/her book at the moment that it is published and enters the public sphere. But to feel the full melancholy force of the adage, there is nothing like facing a translation of a book into a language the author does not understand. (Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, (London: Verso, 1983), (Revised edition 2006) 228)

[3] Berry, “American Imagination and the Civil War,” The Sewanee Review, 115 (Fall 2007): 587–602 at 596–97.

[4] Harry Crews, A Childhood: the Biography of a Place, (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1978) 126.