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.”

––Wittgenstein[1]

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]

NOTES

wood

[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]

NOTES

wood

[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]

NOTES

wood

[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.


Dec 15 2017

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

Mortadella in Bologna, Italia

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

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

Part II.

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? Now it’s time to ask those questions with regard to a current political situation: writing about race while being aware of one’s race as told by four writers:

(1) What is Jess Row’s “What are White Writers For?” New Republic, September 30, 2016 about? This piece struck a nerve when I first read it, so I bookmarked it for the past year and returned to it this past week. Still, a little over a year later, I’m not sure what to think. Row is a novelist and essayist. The focus of his piece is fiction and the problem of white writers writing about race in fiction, not essays. He suggests a scenario where: “It would be easy for a white writer—say, a young white writer, in an MFA program, working on his or her first novel—to … feel caught in an imaginative bind” of being torn from writing about non-white characters in fiction and being accused of appropriation or writing about exclusively white characters and being accused of tribal fascism. “The subtext to these arguments,” writes Row, “is that white writers should just stop writing [fiction],” and he doesn’t believe that to be an adequate answer for a free society.

How so? Row discusses his own efforts at fiction and its various misreadings is conveyed in his observation that it is utter fiction for white writers to suggest white writers aren’t “allowed” to write about certain topics, when the publishing-media complex remains dominated by gatekeepers who identify primarily as white, and who identify that way by a large majority compared to any runners up. Tarantino may choose to use the n-word and Eminem may choose not to, but there are no white hands tied behind anyone’s back. They write what they please.

From what event did Row decide to write about writing about race? A non-Mexicana writer named Lionel Shriver wore a sombrero in Brisbane and caught flack for it. Another writer named Jonathan Franzen confessed in an interview that he didn’t put black characters in his fiction because he lacked substantial real life experience with people identified as black. This queued Row to write about race. What is Row writing about race for? He answers: “The real question in this debate couldn’t be more fundamental: What are novels for, and what are novelists for?” Row calls for writers (particularly white fiction writers) to write something politically relevant. To deny that one’s art is political is a distasteful display of privilege and ignorance. Art is part of the public sphere says Row, “part of one ongoing conversation.”[1] Some novelists, Row points out, write about the present and critique it in their fiction. Others are simply “chroniclers.” But both critique and chronicle are political acts, for to write is to act (scribere est agere) says Judge William Blackstone (1723–1780).[2] Or, in Alan Jacobs’ words, “It seems clear that to publish a book is to invite a response.” [3]

(2) What is Wesley Yang’s “Is It OK to be White?” in Tablet Magazine, November 27, 2017 about? Yang’s point is that these days rhetoric—that is, political writing, particularly about race––is about achieving reaction. Writers who write about race are generally no longer interested in clarity or understanding. Their writings are now about obliterating the ability to share ideas (and ontologies), because, in Yang’s words, such rhetoric “invites dissenters to overreact.” How so? Contemporary rhetoric aims for “confounding instead of confronting” one’s “enemies” via “a self-enclosed system of reference immunized against critique and optimized for virality.” From what did this discussion start? Some alt-right groups posed provocative flyers at “universities and high schools in the United States and Canada” that said, “It’s OK to be white.” What is Yang writing about race for? In his words: “Part of responding to the coalition of white resentment from which the 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.”

(3) What is Aaron Mak’s “The Price of College Admission for Asian Americans,” Slate, December 5, 2017 about? Mak’s focus is on Asian Americans who hide aspects of their “Asian-ness” from college admissions applications. How so? Applicants sometimes change their names, or list feats and talents not traditionally seen as stereotypically “Asian” (that is, East Asian). This is because “the American mainstream likes to assign minorities to a certain mold. There’s a systemic perception that we Asians are all alike, but what about, say, white applicants who play lacrosse? Are they all cookie-cutter too?” From what did this discussion start? The Justice Department has recently announced (in August) that it was investigating admissions policies that were discriminating against Asians, particularly at Harvard. What is Mak writing about race for? To render “the cooperation necessary between people of color to overcome systemic racism” without “contorting” one’s “identity.”

(4) What is Andy Ngo’s “When Racism is Disguised as Anti-Racism,” Quillette, December 5, 2017 about? Ngo attended an anti-racism event on a college campus: “Until that day,” Ngo writes, “I’d never seen people overtly dehumanized and treated as racialized objects—amplified through the use of words like ‘bodies’ to refer to people of color.” How so? “The lack of any ideological counterpoise has created a vacuum where ideas have no mechanism or incentive for moderation.” From what did this discussion start? A student at Texas State University in San Marcos recently published an op-ed calling for the genocide of white people. Ngo then felt the need to respond. What is Andy Ngo writing about race for? Ngo believes that such a vacuum needs to be eliminated, that ideological counterpoises should be cultivated to moderate contemporary rhetoric involving race.

So by answering Al-farabi’s questions—which meant I had to reread each article and carefully think it through––I now have a slightly clearer understanding of the political problem of writing about race while being aware of one’s own race. In Part III I will try to look toward some solutions to this problem.

NOTES

wood

[1] As Charles Taylor (1931–) explains:

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) 85)

[2] Blackstone, Commentaries (IV, vi).

[3] Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011) 54.


Dec 15 2017

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

porticos in Bologna, Italia

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

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

Part I.

Diversity is good. Therefore: knowledge that happens to be diverse is better than knowledge that happens not to be. When a body of knowledge lacks diversity, it is called specialization. I would rather be diverse than special, a dilettante rather than a scholar.

But writing about race is a political problem for both dilettantes and scholars. Writing about race involves ingroups and outgroups. As Alan Jacobs has recently pointed out in his book How to Think (2017):

Our ability to think well will be determined to some considerable degree by who those others are: what we might call the moral form of our community. A willingness to be “broken on the floor,” for example, is in itself testimony to belief that the people you’re debating are decent people who don’t want to harm or manipulate you—whereas if you don’t trust people you’re unlikely to allow them anything like a “victory” over you. This suggests that the problem of belonging and not-belonging, affiliation and separation, is central to the task of learning how to think. [1]

Philosophy is learning how to think. Philosophy is problem solving. Political philosophy attempts to solve (or at least identify) political problems.

I cannot solve the political problem of writing about race while being aware of one’s race. Instead I can take lessons I’ve learned from reading and apply them to my writing. The first lesson comes from the mediaeval Persian philosopher Al-farabi (872–950 AD), who (following Aristotle and Plato) identifies four questions one should ask of any political problem:

He should make known what and how every one of [the things under discussion] is, and from what and for what it is, until all of them become known, intelligible, and distinguished from each other. This is political science. It consists of knowing the things by which the citizens of cities attain happiness through political association in the measure that innate disposition equips each of them for it. It will become evident to him that political association and the totality that results from the association of citizens in cities correspond to the association of the bodies that constitute the totality of the world. [2]

In other words, to see the big picture of the topic under discussion, one has to answer the four questions. I’ve read four recent pieces on the topic of race in the United States. These pieces discuss race as well as the problem of writing about race. I want to use Al-farabi’s method of asking four questions for each of the four written articles to try to understand the problem better. Why? Because answering these questions helps me better think about what I’ve read. Literally these questions help me how to think. For, as Jacobs points out: “The genuine community is open to thinking and questioning, so long as those thoughts and questions come from people of goodwill.” [3] Or, in the words of Martin Buber (1878–1965), (if one can temporarily ignore his über-patriarchal writing style):

Genuine conversation, and therefore every actual fulfillment of relation between men, means acceptance of otherness…. Man wishes to be confirmed in his being by man, and wishes to have a presence in the being of the other…. Man exists anthropologically not in his isolation, but in the completeness of the relation between man and man; what humanity is can be properly grasped only in vital reciprocity.[4]

So I ask Al-farabi’s four questions concerning four articles so I may begin engaging in a “genuine conversation” concerning race and writing and one’s awareness of one’s race while writing. To see how that plays out, you’ll have to read Part II.

NOTES

wood

[1] Alan Jacobs, How to Think: a Survival Guide in a World at Odds, (New York, NY: Currency Books, 2017) 54.

[2] Alfarabi, Alfarabi’s Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, Translated by Muhsin Mahdi, (Chicago, IL: Agora Books, 1969), “The Attainment of Happiness,” p. 24, i, ¶ 20.

[3] Jacobs, How to Think 59.

[4] Buber, The Knowledge of Man: a Philosophy of the Interhuman, trans. by Maurice Friedman and Ronald Gregor Smith, (New York NY: Harper & Row, 1966) 69, 71, 84.


Dec 12 2017

Between Real and Unreal in Death and Pornography

Mark Twain in Athens

Between Real and Unreal in Death and Pornography

Beginning with Oscar Wilde (1854-1900):

Yes, Mr. Gray, the gods have been good to you. But what the gods give they quickly take away. You have only a few years in which to live really, perfectly, and fully. When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you, or have to content yourself with those mean triumphs that the memory of your past will make more bitter than defeats. Every month as it wanes brings you nearer to something dreadful. Time is jealous of you, and wars against your lilies and your roses. You will become sallow, and hollow-cheeked, and dull-eyed. You will suffer horribly…. Ah! realize your youth while you have it. Don’t squander the gold of your days, listening to the tedious, trying to improve the hopeless failure, or giving away your life to the ignorant, the common, and the vulgar. These are the sickly aims, the false ideals, of our age. Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing…. A new Hedonism—that is what our century wants.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, ch. 2.

Now compare Alexi Sargeant, “The Undeath of Cinema: Why digital resurrection is so creepy–and how it’s hastening Hollywood’s decline into a soulless factory,” The New Atlantis, Summer/Fall 2017:

Peter Cushing’s performance in 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is remarkable because Cushing died in 1994. Industrial Light & Magic’s computer-generated imagery (CGI) wizards digitally resurrected Cushing to once again portray the villainous Imperial Grand Moff Tarkin, a central antagonist of the original 1977 Star Wars, in which the character brutally orders the destruction of Princess Leia’s home planet of Alderaan. Recreating Cushing for Rogue One was experimental in two senses: Disney was testing out both the technology and audiences’ reactions to it.

And from Samantha Cole, “AI-Assisted Fake Porn is Here and We’re All Fucked,” Vice, December 11, 2017:

Someone used an algorithm to paste the face of ‘Wonder Woman’ star Gal Gadot onto a porn video, and the implications are terrifying….

And a followup to Cole’s piece by Rod Dreher, “Stop it with the Selfies. Really,” The American Conservative, December 12, 2017.

Returning to Wilde:

“My dear Gladys, I would not alter either name for the world. They are both perfect. I was thinking chiefly of flowers. Yesterday I cut an orchid, for my button-hole. It was a marvellous spotted thing, as effective as the seven deadly sins. In a thoughtless moment I asked one of the gardeners what it was called. He told me it was a fine specimen of Robinsoniana, or something dreadful of that kind. It is a sad truth, but we have lost the faculty of giving lovely names to things. Names are everything. I never quarrel with actions. My one quarrel is with words. That is the reason I hate vulgar realism in literature. The man who could call a spade a spade should be compelled to use one. It is the only thing he is fit for.”

The Picture of Dorian Gray ch. XVII

 


Dec 11 2017

Two Brief Thoughts on Reading Books

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Two Brief Thoughts on Reading Books

A ghost––either of Isaac D’Israeli (1766–1848), or Andrew Lang (1844–1912), or Jorge Borges (1899–1986)––asks how differently I read a book (or author) when:

(1) I’ve bought the book,

(2) I’ve been lent the book from a friend or library,

(3) I’ve been given the book (and cannot re-gift it), or

(4) I’ve stolen the book?[1]

For scenarios (1) and (4), the answer involves me as an individual recognizing my own need to read. But in scenarios (2) and (3), it is someone else who recognizes the need for me to read something I have yet to get around to or perhaps deserve to reread. For I read differently when I want to read compared to the times when someone else wants me to read, either silently to myself or aloud to anyone around.

*****

When I was a child there were two kinds of trees: those you could climb, and those you couldn’t. Funny, I don’t remember thinking of buildings this way, even though the same principle would apply. But architecture is frozen music,[2] while books are trees. My childish eyes looked only for attainable branches to grab, sturdy knots to claw, and convenient toeholds to brace.

And these days I think I still think of books like that: books and trees that can be read or climbed versus those that can’t, or, at least on initial inspection, look too challenging to attempt. For example Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007) is a towering redwood whose canopy I slowly approach. ’Tis a big book, one I began reading in June of this year, and, after taking about 60 pages worth of notes, am only about a third of the way through. I scoot up its trunk with some fear and much trembling, not knowing what I’ll find when I reach the top, or how I’ll safely get back down.

NOTES

wood

[1] Andrew Lang, The Library, (New York, NY: Macmillan & Co, 1881). Reprinted under Dodo Press. 2004:

The Book-Ghoul is he who combines the larceny of the biblioklept with the abominable wickedness of breaking up and mutilating the volumes from which he steals … He prepares books for the American market. (p. 28)

See also D’Israeli’s essay “A Bibliognoste” in Curiosities of LiteratureVol. III, (Sixth edition, London: John Murray, 1817.)

[2] Goethe, Aus Meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit, (1811–1830) in Poetry and Truth from My Own Life, (trans. R. O. Moon, Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1949) II, 43.


Dec 5 2017

Scottish Schadenfreude from David Hume

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Scottish Schadenfreude from David Hume

“[David Hume] loved to puncture convictions and to discomfit dignitaries. He was sincerely irreligious, but he also wanted to shock. Such Schadenfreude doubtless quickens a man’s perception of vulnerable targets, but in itself it gives no more, though no less, of a title to intellectual eminence than does the desire to reassure. Both can be motives to good, both to bad thinking. But the quality of the thinking has to be judged by its results, not by its motives.”

––Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976)

“Hume” (1956) in Gilbert Ryle: Collected Papers. Vol. I, (London: Hutchinson & Co, 1971).


Dec 3 2017

Some Notes on “How to Think” by Alan Jacobs

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, Italia

Some Notes on How to Think (2017) by Alan Jacobs

  • “To be freely aware and richly responsible” means gracefully attending to the “relational goods” of one’s neighbor (Jacobs 47-49)….
  • One must graciously attend/adjust/adapt these relational goods–what Roger Scruton calls “negotiating our posture toward the other,” (Jacobs 83)….
  • Genuine questioning in a community is conversation, not communication, (Jacobs 59) as I’ve recently pointed out:

Communication [says Wendell Berry] is when you’re being told to do something by someone else, like to remove a statue or let it remain. Conversation, on the other hand, is dialogue, a back-and-forth process of giving and receiving. Or to use the words of Martin Buber, while conversation is a mode of discourse where an “I” and a “You” function as reciprocal partners, communication is a mode of discourse between an all-powerful “I” talking down to a faceless, listening “It.” The first treats humans as individuals; the latter as mere objects of manipulation. Hence the fluidity of conversation is open to inquiry in ways that rigid communication isn’t.

  • Out of that negotiation one finds a You in their neighbor instead of an It….
  • My neighbor who voted differently than I….
  • As I read How to Think, I keep recalling words from Martin Buber (1878-1965Knowledge of Man (1966):

Genuine conversation, and therefore every actual fulfillment of relation between men, means acceptance of otherness….  (69) Man wishes to be confirmed in his being by man, and wishes to have a presence in the being of the other…. (71)

By far the greater part of what is today called conversation among men would be more properly and precisely described as speechifying. In general, people do not really speak to one another, but each, although turned to the other, really speaks to a fictitious court of appeal whose life consists of noting but listening to him…. (78–79)

Man exists anthropologically not in his isolation, but in the completeness of the relation between man and man; what humanity is can be properly grasped only in vital reciprocity…. (84)

Now, since if there is anything real, then (on account of this reality consisting in the ultimate agreement of all men, and on account of the fact that reasoning from parts to whole, is the only kind of synthetic reasoning which men possess) it follows necessarily that a sufficiently long succession of inferences from parts to whole will lead men to a knowledge of it, so that in that case they cannot be fated on the whole to be thoroughly unlucky in their inductions. This second branch of the problem is in fact equivalent to asking why there is anything real, and thus its solution will carry the solution of the former branch one step further…. Each of us is an insurance company, in short….

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…. (“Ground of Validity of the Laws of Logic: Further Consequences of Four Incapacities.”)

Finally, 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. (“Some Consequences of Four Incapacities.”)

Great to see @ayjay and @austinkleon at @bookpeople tonight #books #thinking #literature #ATX #Austin

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