Aug 11 2022




So, just horsing around, not really meaning anything by it, I told myself I was tired of old lessons from old books—lessons most people never followed anyway, which is why we are where we are now, right? Still, I told myself:

  • The Perfect is not the enemy of the Good.
  • But seeking the Perfect may lead one to bypass the Good. One bypasses the forest in search of the perfect tree. How many good books have been passed over in search of the Perfect Book?
  • Give me the imperfect. If the Tower of Pisa were plumb, its remarkability and marketability would diminish to some great degree.
  • At some point, the pursuit of the Perfect requires tunnel-vision. It requires putting up unnatural barriers to blind one from so-called distractions, digressions, and other sundry paths one fancies. For the winning horse always wears blinders, and always stays in its designated lane.
  • Yes, if one is hyper-focused on an object or goal, one may feel lots of feelings while focusing––but, in that moment of focus, one will always be too busy focusing to instead take the time to reflect on those feelings which occur while one is focusing.
  • So one shouldn’t look for a perfect trip to Europe. A good trip can be good enough. For there is no perfect plan for a good trip. Why, just yesterday didn’t 孫子兵法 (Sun Tzu) (~544 BC–495 BC) warn against the totalitarianism of perfect planning? Didn’t he say:

When the front is prepared, the rear is lacking, and when the rear is prepared the front is lacking. Preparedness on the left means lack on the right, preparedness on the right means lack on the left. Preparedness everywhere means lack everywhere.

(孫子兵法 (The Art of War)(c. ~500 BC), trans. Thomas Cleary, (Boston: Shambhala, 1988),“VI. Emptiness and Fullness,” p. 108)

  • Nor can I write the perfect novel; though I would like to write a good one. I can’t play the perfect song on guitar, but I will try to continue to go farther in my playing than from where I’ve been before. I will try to remember that 孔子 (Kong Fuzi a.k.a. Confucius) (~551BC–479BC) wasn’t that interested in perfection:

The Master seldom spoke on profit, on the orderings of Providence [divination?], and on perfection.

(論語 (Analects) (475 BC–220 AD) in The Analects: or, the Conversations of Confucius with His Disciples and Certain Others, trans. William Edward Soothill, (Oxford UP, 1910; 1955), (IX, i), p. 80)

And C. S. Peirce (1839–1914) once reflected that:

It is but charitable to be a little inaccurate.

(“Think Again!” Harvard Magazine 4 (April 1858), [pp. 100–105] in The Writings of Charles S. Peirce: a Chronological Edition. Vol. I: 1857–1866, (Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1982), p. 24)


Still, can such proverbs be rendered into protocols? Who dares to maximize the maxims of the past? Was Don Quixote the only one who dared to not only read and recite dichos, but actually apply them? Is this what 老子 (Lao Tzu/Laozi) meant by:

The way to use life is to do nothing through acting,
The way to use life is to do everything through being.

(道德经 Tao Teh Ching (The Way of Life) (c. ~500 BC), trans. Witter Bynner, (New York: Putnam, 1944; Perigee 1986) XXXVII, p. 64)




Beginning with Francis Bacon (1561–1626):

Truth may perhaps come to the price of a pearl, that sheweth best by day; but it will not rise to the price of a diamond or carbuncle, that sheweth best in varied lights. A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure.

Doth any man doubt, that if there were taken out of men’s minds vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would, and the like, but it would leave the minds of a number of men poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves?

(“Of Truth,” Essays or Counsels Civil and Moral (1625) in Essays, ed. Brian Vickers, (New York: Oxford UP, 1999), p. 3)

Next from Daniel Kahneman:

I have always believed that scientific research is another domain where a form of optimism is essential to success:

I have yet to meet a successful scientist who lacks the ability to exaggerate the importance of what he or she is doing, and I believe that someone who lacks a delusional sense of significance will wilt in the fact of repeated experiences of multiple small failures and rare successes, the fate of most researchers….

(Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011), p. 264)


You should know that correcting your intuitions may complicate your life.

A characteristic of unbiased predictions is that they permit the prediction of rare or extreme events only when the information is very good.

If you expect your predictions to be of modest validity you will never guess an outcome that is either rare or far from the mean.

If your predictions are unbiased, you will never have the satisfying experience of correctly calling an extreme case.

You will never be able to say, “I thought so!” when your best student in law school becomes a Supreme Court justice, or when a start-up that you thought very promising eventually becomes a major commercial success.

Given the limitations of the evidence, you will never predict that an outstanding high school student will be a straight-A student at Princeton.

For the same reason, a venture capitalist will never be told that the probability of success for a start-up in its early stages is “very high.”

(Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, p. 192)

Then from Karl Popper (1902–1994):

No conclusive disproof of a theory can ever be produced; for it is always possible to say that the experimental results are not reliable, or that the discrepancies which are asserted to exist between the experimental results and the theory are only apparent and that they will disappear with the advance of our understanding.

(In the struggle against Einstein, both these arguments were often used in support of Newtonian mechanics, and similar arguments abound in the field of the social sciences.)

If you insist on strict proof (or strict disproof) in the empirical sciences, you will never benefit from experience, and never learn from it how wrong you are.)

(“Scientific Method,” (1934), Popper Selections, ed. David Miler, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1985), p. 137)

Popper is, of course, following Bertrand Russell (1872–1970):

Scientific theories are accepted as useful hypotheses to suggest further research, and as having some element of truth in virtue of which they are able to colligate existing observations; but no sensible person regards them as immutably perfect.

(“Philosophy and Politics,” Unpopular Essays, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1950, 1969), p. 18)

Oct 30 2021

Some Newish Advice for Writers, with the Aid of Chris Arnade

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

The language he used was that of a man who was sick and tired of the world he lived in—though he had much liking for his fellow men—and had resolved, for his part, to have no truck with injustice and compromises with the truth.

––Albert Camus, (La Peste (The Plague), trans. Stuart Gilbert, (New York: Knopf, 1957), ch. I, pp. 11–12.)

I have previously written about the work of Chris Arnade here and here. I continue to study him. He is teaching me to observe the world, as well as the people around me, better. And I hope, in turn, that that will help make me a better writer.

Arnade is teaching me that, as I writer, I need to walk, watch, write—in other words, stop looking at every occurrence as a “problem” to be solved, resolved, contemplated, pontificated upon; instead, just look and listen. I must learn to apprehend what I can accept and accept what I can apprehend. As Arnade puts it:

But walking forces you to slow down and talk to the people living there. You get to see beyond the bleh, and watch the endless string of tiny dramas that make up a city, and most people’s lives….

I also knew I would be reminded just how dramatically removed from each other the front and back row are. How little the front row gets these types of places, in a lived reality way, despite making claims to, and how little these places understand (or care about) what drives the front row, in an aspirational way….

There are plenty of very concerned articles in very serious periodicals about them, filled with suggestions that the residents themselves know little about.

But that isn’t what I want to focus on, because I walk to see beyond those problems….

To be blunt, as much as I enjoyed my brief time in Holyoke, Chicopee, and Springfield, I ultimately left with a mixture of sadness, frustration, and anger. Few, if any, outsiders care about these towns. Beyond seeing them as problems that need to be solved.

(“Walking America, part 1: Springfield, Chicopee, and Holyoke,” Intellectual Inting, September 29, 2021.)

As a writer seeking to improve his craft, I need to beware of any sense in my soul of squirming at so-called sentimentality, quaintness. Admittedly, no, I don’t like it when callers call-in to my favorite local morning radio show, because they slow down the pace of the show, its ongoing conversation, they try to be funny and fail, or they espouse empty insults. Nonetheless, I need to pay attention to why they make me squirm. It has something to do with what Arnade is getting at:

“Sense of place”, “elevating life above the mundane”, and “filled with soul” — Technocrats, city planners, Neo-libs, don’t like these squishy phrases. To them they are sentimental nonsense. They like terms you can define, evaluate, and adjudicate with math and science. Numbers they can jam into a spreadsheet. Like GDP growth, or commuting times, or total cycle route mileage.

I as a writer I need to learn to not laugh at sentimentality:

A good man will see that everything he says is consistent with his dignity and the respectability of his character; for we pay too dear for the laugh we raise if it is at the cost of our own integrity.

––Quintilian, (Institutio Oratoria Vol. II, trans. H. E. Butler, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1920) (VI, ii, 35) p. 457.)

Instead, I need, as Seneca puts it, to start cultivating a relationship with poverty (whether economic or cultural) by writing about and listening to those in need. For:

Hunger will make you find even that bread soft and wheaty. One shouldn’t, accordingly, eat until hunger demands. I shall wait, then, and not eat until I either start getting good bread again or cease to be fussy about bad bread. It is essential to make oneself used to putting up with a little. Even the wealthy and the well provided are continually met and frustrated by difficult times and situations.

(Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (Letters from a Stoic), trans. Robin Campbell, (New York: Penguin Classics, 1969) Letter XVIII, p. 69; Letter CXXIII, pp. 226–27.)

Moreover, says Seneca:

You should live for the other person if you wish to live for yourself.

(Letters from a Stoic, Letter XLVIII, p. 96.)

And instead, as Marcus Aurelius advises, learn to live with those who have learned to live with the gods:

Live with the gods. To live with the gods is to show them at all times a soul contented with their awards, and wholly fulfilling the will of that inward divinity, that particle of himself, which Zeus has given to every man for ruler and guide—the mind and the reason…. (V, xxvii)

Adapt yourself to the environment in which your lot has been cast, and show true love to the fellow-mortals with whom destiny has surrounded you…. (VI, xxxix)

Let your one delight and refreshment be to pass from one service to the community to another, with God ever in mind…. (VI, vii)

Men exist for each other. Then either improve them, or put up with them…. (VIII, lix)

Enter into the ruling principle of your neighbour’s mind, and suffer him to enter into yours. (VIII, lxi)

(Meditations, trans. Maxwell Staniforth, (New York: Penguin, 1962.)

Finally, recall always C. S. Peirce, how: “The best maxim in writing, perhaps, is really to love your reader for his own sake.” And that part of being a merciful observer and writer means that, with regard to whatever (and whoever) one is writing about, “it is but charitable to be a little inaccurate.”

(The Writings of Charles S. Peirce: a Chronological Edition. Vol. I: 1857–1866, (Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1982), “Private Thoughts, March 17, 1888,” p. 9; “Think Again!” Harvard Magazine 4 (April 1858), [pp. 100–105], p. 24.)

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, Midnight’s 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, Midnight’s 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 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 (1878-1965) Knowledge 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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Jul 1 2017

Reading About Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (Part II)

Reading About Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (Part II)

After a careful first reading of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (2017), I find its central thesis to be found on page 83:

The real question facing us is not whether to quit politics entirely, but how to exercise political power prudently, especially in an unstable political culture. When is it cowardly not to cooperate with secular politicians out of an exaggerated fear of impurity–and when is it corrupting to be complicit?

Or as Miss Anscombe once put it:

It is indeed one of the troubles about government, that it is difficult to specify the ‘things that are Caesar’s.’[1]

This is the same question that confronts Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons (1966). Its historical inaccuracies aside, it develops the question of whether the King or the Church would rule England.

It is the same question the butler Stephens refuses to face in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day (1989) with regard to whether his employer was a Nazi sympathizer and if Stephens “did his duty” by never questioning his employer’s requests.

And what is the answer to Dreher’s and Anscombe’s and Bolt’s and Ishiguro’s dilemma? I suggested last time that it might involve Emersonian compensation. But now C. S. Peirce is nagging me, and I’m afraid he re-articulates the whole problem when he says:

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.[2]

See also: “Reading About Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (Part III).”


Reading About Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (Part I).”



[1] “On the Source of the Authority of the State.” From Ratio 20 (1), 1978. The Collected Philosophical Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe. Vol. III: Ethics, Religion and Politics. Blackwell: Oxford. 1981. p. 132.

[2] “The Fixation of Belief.” Popular Science Monthly. No. 12. (November, 1877.) 1-15.

Sep 6 2016

Advice for Voters: Politics in Fugue Form



In a democracy, the prisoners pick their wardens. While we are told this is an important election for Americans, the old standbys of political philosophy appear to not be as effective as once before. For example, Texas, recently voted for a multiple-alleged criminal to oversee and uphold the laws of the state.

Perhaps we should turn away (at least temporarily) from the usual suspects, away from Philadelphia 1787, away from the idolatry of forefathers and their slave exemptions. But then who will counsel meager citizen me? Who can help me choose the best politician—the best person to make me do what I don’t want to do?

I will try to find my answer by listening to a fugue, that is, “the orderly and varied reiteration of the same ‘subject’.”[1] I will harken to points and counterpoints.


Caesar: “All folks strive toward freedom while despising all forms of slavery.”[2]

Machiavelli: “Citizens of a republic want only not to be oppressed … only its nobles want to oppress others.”[3]

Vico: “If people were left to pursue their private interests, they would live in solitude like wild beasts….  We defend our natural liberty most fiercely to preserve the goods most essential to our survival. By contrast, we submit to the chains of civil servitude to obtain external goods which are not necessary to life. [4]


Burke: “Liberty, when men [and women] act in bodies, is power…. In all bodies, those who will lead must also, in a considerable degree, follow… In this political traffic, the leaders will be obliged to bow to the ignorance of their followers, and the followers to become subservient to the worst designs of their leaders.”[5]

Anscombe: “What is institutional must exclude all that is personal, casual or sporadic.[6] This is why ‘possibility is the deconstruction of contentment.’[7] So to attain your goal, you’ve got to give up what you’ve already got.”


Rawls: “To be at liberty and free from oppression is, in some sense, to be disinterested, and therefore detached, as it is written: ‘one feature of justice as fairness is to think of the parties in the initial situation as rational and mutually disinterested’.”[8]

Searle: “Roughly speaking, power is the ability to make people do something whether they want to do it or not.”[9]

Wilkerson: “The friend showed him what to do, and Pershing worked beside him. He looked up and saw the foreman watching him. Pershing pretended not to see him, worked even harder. The foreman left, and, when he came back, Pershing was still at work. At the end of the day, the foreman hired him. Pershing finished out the summer stacking staves, not minding the hard work and not finding it demeaning. ‘Sometimes,’ he said, ‘You have to stoop to conquer’.” [10]



[1] Lewis, C. S. “Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages.” Chapter 3 from The Discarded Image: Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Cambridge UP. 1966. Originally delivered in 1956 as a pair of lectures to an audience of scientists in Cambridge. Reprinted in Chaucer and His Contemporaries: Essays on Medieval Literature and Thought. Edited and Introduced by Helaine Newstead. NY: Fawcet. 1968. 46–66 at 61. Compare Lewis later: “The motions of the universe are to be conceived not as those of a machine or even an army, but rather as a dance, a festival, a symphony, a ritual, a carnival, or all these in one,” (64). And compare C. S. Peirce:

Every thought, however artificial and complex, is, so far as it is immediately present, a mere sensation without parts, and therefore, in itself, without similarity to any other, but incomparable with any other and absolutely sui generis [its own kind]. Whatever is wholly incomparable with anything else is wholly inexplicable, because explanation consists in bringing things under general laws or under natural classes. (“Some Consequences of Four Incapacities.” Journal of Speculative Philosophy. No. 2. 1868. 140–57.)

And compare Paul Valéry:

Do not search for ‘truth’*—But seek to develop those forces which make and unmake truths. Seek to think of a greater number of simultaneous things,—to think longer and more rigorously of the same one—to catch yourself in the very act—to suspend your hesitations,—to give new momentum to what is clogged up. Suggest co-ordinations to yourself. Try out your ideas as functions and means…. [Editor’s note:] *Cf. the later comment of 1940, ‘I am searching for the truth of thought and not for truth by thought.’ Cahiers = Notebooks. Vol. I. Translated by Paul Gifford et al. Edited by Brian Stimpson. Based on the French Cahiers edited by Judith Robinson-Valéry. (1912, I 12, IV, 783.) [pp. 264-65] and (C, XXIV, 168) [p. 617])

[2] Caesar, Gallic War, III, x.

[3] Machiavelli, Il Principe, IX.

[4] Vico, The Third New Science, “Idea of the Work” [¶ 2] 2 and I, § 2, xciv, [¶ 290], p. 109.

[5] Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France.

[6] Anscombe, G. E. M. “On the Source of the Authority of the State.” From Ratio 20 (1), 1978. Anscombe Vol. III: Ethics, Religion and Politics. Oxford: Blackwell. 1981. p. 131.

[7] Anscombe, “You Can have Sex without Children: Christianity and the New Offer.” From Renewal of Religious Structures: Proceedings of the Canadian Centenary Theological Congress. Toronto. 1968. Anscombe Vol. III: Ethics, Religion and Politics p. 82.

[8] Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. (Revised Edition.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 1999. § 3, p. 12.

[9] Searle, John. Freedom and Neurobiology. NY: Columbia UP. 2007. p.104.

[10] Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns. NY: Random House/Vintage Books. 2010. p. 117.

Jul 27 2016

Rereading Ruthie Leming – Part II: Beyond Democracy Lies Caritas’cracy


Rereading Ruthie Leming – Part II: Beyond Democracy Lies Caritas’cracy

Theory of Caritas

The will of a community reflects the collective intentionality of its members.[1]

The will of a community is often, but not always, expressed in the language of the community.[2]

Through language, a community treats its members sometimes as individuals, sometimes as objects.[3]

An institution is realized when a community uses language in an organized pattern with precedence (such as an established tradition) to achieve, express, and reflect the will of the community.[4]

When a community, through its language, treats its members as individuals (as with memorializing veterans, first-responders,[5] and athletes, or raising money for a kid with cancer), the community practices an I–You mode of discourse and establishes an institution that treats its members as individuals.

When a community, through its language, treats its members as objects (as with voting lists and tax rolls and redlining), the community practices the I­–It mode of discourse and establishes an institution that treats its members as objects.

A community needs institutions that both treat its members as individuals and treats them as objects.

Practice of Caritas

In The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (2014), Rod Dreher writes about a conversation with his brother-in-law where they discussed the community institution of caritas, the caritas demonstrated by Dreher’s parents:

“Your mom and dad never meet a stranger,” [Mike Leming] said. “Once they get to know you, you become family right off, especially if you help them with something. Whatever’s theirs is yours.”[6]

For the Drehers, the charity received from a stranger grants that stranger automatic entry into the Drehers’ community—so that the stranger becomes no longer a stranger but a familiar. The cost of entry into this community is neither an indulgence to pay for prior debts, nor a bribe to pay for present greed, nor a desert to satisfy modern members of the meritocracy. Perhaps the institution of the Drehers caritas could be called a caritas’cracy.

This institutional mechanism of caritas’cracy functions in the I–You mode of language. It is achieved when one individual charitably encounters another. It occurs when we speak and listen to each other rather than over or at each other.

No matter the neologism, the institution of the Drehers charity (and their response to the charity of others), confronts one of principle anxieties of C. S. Lewis’s life: the resentment that comes with any in-group/out-group dynamic. As Lewis lectured his students:

When you had climbed up to somewhere near it by the end of your second year, perhaps you discovered that within the Ring there was a Ring yet more inner, which in its turn was the fringe of the great school Ring to which the house Rings were only satellites. It is even possible that the School Ring was almost in touch with a Masters’ Ring. You were beginning, in fact, to pierce through the skins of the onion….

One of the most dominant elements [of Life] is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside…. This desire is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action…. [But] As long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want. You are trying to peel an onion: if you succeed there will be nothing left….

You were not looking for virtue or kindness or loyalty or humour or learning or wit or any of the things that can be really enjoyed. You merely wanted to be “in”. And that is a pleasure than [sic., that] cannot last. As soon as your new associates have been stalled to you by custom, you will be looking for another Ring. The rainbow’s end will still be ahead of you. The old Ring will now be only the drab background for your endeavour to enter the new one.[7]

When the Dreher’s daughter Ruthie dies, the wonderful life she lived as an individual made her death from terminal illness all the more meaningful to the community:

It was an evening of beer drinking, country dancing, and merrymaking, the likes of which there had been far too little of since that awful day in February. For Ruthie this was an It’s a Wonderful Life moment as the people of the parish took the opportunity to show her and tell her what a difference she had made in their lives. At the end of the evening, over a thousand people had come through the gates, and the people of our little country parish had raised forty-three thousand dollars for Ruthie Leming. “This is how it’s supposed to be,” an old friend said to me that night, looking out over the crowd. “This is what folk are supposed to do for each other.”[8]

This is what Buber was getting at when he realized the common joy of the soul is the foundation of genuine community.[9]

How must a community thrive if it must use institutions to achieve its intentions—when to use institutions means encountering and engaging with the inherent resentment of all in-group/out-group dynamics? As Dreher reminds us, we cannot recreate Eden,[10] but the caritas’cracy of the elder Drehers may point us the way forward.



[1] For philosopher John Searle, meaning is derived intentionality (Freedom and Neurobiology NY: Columbia UP. 2007. p. 8). And: “Intentionality essentially involves the representation of conditions of satisfaction,” (“Language and Social Ontology,” Theory and Society. Vol. 37. No. 5. (October 2008.) 443–59 at 445).

[2] See Peirce:

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.” Journal of Speculative Philosophy. Vol. 2. 1868. 140–157. (

Compare de Saussure:

The signal, in relation to the idea it represents, may seem to be freely chosen. However, from the point of view of the linguistic community, the signal is imposed rather than freely chosen. Speakers are not consulted about its choice. Once the language has selected a signal, it cannot be freely replaced by any other. There appears to be something rather contradictory about this. It is a kind of linguistic Hobson’s choice. What can be chosen is already determined in advance. No individual is able, even if he wished, to modify in any way a choice already established in the language. Nor can the linguistic community exercise its authority to change even a single word. The community, as much as the individual, is bound in its language. (Course in General Linguistics. edited by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye with the collaboration of Albert Riedlinger; translated and annotated by Roy Harris. London: G. Duckworth. 1983. p. 71.)

And compare Searle:

A way to come to see this point is to ask oneself, what is the difference between regarding an object as an instance of linguistic communication and not so regarding it? One crucial difference is this. When I take a noise or a mark on a piece of paper to be an instance of linguistic communication, as a message, one of the things I must assume is that the noise or mark as a natural phenomenon like the wind in the trees or a stain on the paper, I exclude it from the class of linguistic communication, even though the noise or mark may be indistinguishable from spoken or written words. Furthermore, not only must I assume the noise or mark to have been produced as a result of intentional behavior, but I must also assume that the intentions are of a very special kind peculiar to speech acts. (Speech Acts: an Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge UP. 1969§ 1.4, pp. 16–17.)

[3] Based on the work of Martin Buber. Buber’s I–You and I–It modes of linguistic discourse are two examples of collective intentionality. According to Buber, the world itself is not twofold but the human world is twofold for humans. Con artists hook their victims by speaking to the mark as if in I–You mode, when all along they were playing the language game of the I–It mode on the victim (Ich und Du. (I and Thou.) 1923. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. Scribner: NY. 1970. I § 1).

The I–You mode of discourse marks a relation between two humans being; this mode expresses the ratio between two individuals. One human does not divide the other, but the two humans stand in dynamic reciprocity to one another (I and Thou I § 5).

Genuine conversation, and therefore every actual fulfillment of relation between men, means acceptance of otherness (Buber, The Knowledge of Man: a Philosophy of the Interhuman. Translated by Maurice Friedman and Ronald Gregor Smith. Harper & Row: NY. 1966. p. 69). Buber points out how we speak over each other rather than to each other—we must practice directness rather than “speechifying” and placating to “a fictitious court of appeal,” (Knowledge of Man 78–79). Moreover:

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. (Knowledge of Man 84)

A person becomes an I through the You mode of discourse (I and Thou I § 28). Or as Gregory Bateson once put it, “It takes two to know one,” (Nachmanovitch, Stephen. “Gregory Bateson: Old Men Ought to be Explorers.” Leonardo, Vol. 17. No. 2. (1984.) 113–118 at 113).

[4] Compare Searle:

Institutions always consist in constitutive rules (practices, procedures) that have the form X counts as Y in context C… The Y term imposes a new status on the phenomenon named by the X term, and the new status carries with it a function that cannot be performed just by virtue of the intrinsic physical features named by the X term. The function requires the status in order that it be performed, and the status requires collective intentionality, including a continued acceptance of the status with its corresponding function. (The Construction of Social Reality. NY: Simon and Schuster. 1995. p. 114).

Compare Searle critic Philia Mfundo Msimang:

Whereas singular intentionality is generally construed as a unidirectional force from the agent to the world (viz., imposing one’s will on a state of affairs), collective intentionality is a bidirectional force from the point of view of any participating agent because it both guides and restricts each agent’s action while, at the same time, being bolstered and influenced by each respective agent’s own actions. In this context, individual intentionality is derivative of the group or collective intentionality….

All social institutions are founded on a symmetrical agreement (by which I mean mutual recognition), and this entails not only that people have to hold the same intentionality but that they must hold this intentionality fundamentally in relation to one another’s intentionality. What I mean by this is that there is no sense to collective intentionality outside its relation to, and satisfaction by, another individual’s intentionality. Collective intentionality cannot be satisfied by respective individual intentionalities but has its conditions of satisfaction defined by a symmetrical relationship between intentionalities. (“Living in One World: Searle’s Social Ontology and Semiotics.” Signs and Society. Vol. 2. No. 2. (Fall 2014.) 173–202 at 181–82.)

[5] Dreher, Rod. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013.p. 45.

[6] Dreher, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming p. 47.

[7] Lewis, C.S. “The Inner Ring – Memorial oration at King’s College, London, 1944.” They Asked for a Paper. London: G. Bles. 1962.” pp. 141–142, 145, 147, and 148.

[8] Dreher, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming p. 135. See also later (200–03) when Ruthie’s piety prevented her funeral from becoming a dreary affair and instead rendered it into a celebration.

[9] Buber, Meetings: Martin Buber. Edited by Maurice Friedman. La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing Co. 1973. p. 39.

[10] Dreher, How Dante Can Save Your Life: the Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. p. 265.

Jun 3 2016

Why All Habits Are Bad: Oscar Wilde & Marcel Proust

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna

Why All Habits Are Bad: Oscar Wilde & Marcel Proust

Perez Zagorin notes: “[Proust] had actually been introduced to Wilde in Paris and invited him to dinner.”[1] One could imagine they talked of nothing but women. (Or not.) Or perhaps they discussed the meaning of the word “habit.” For Wilde, habit is the enemy of all creativity, because art destroys monotony. In Wilde’s words:

Many a young man starts in life with a natural gift for exaggeration which, if nurtured in congenial and sympathetic surroundings, or by the imitation of the best models, might grow into something really great and wonderful. But, as a rule, he comes to nothing … He either falls into careless habits of accuracy, or takes to frequenting the society of the aged and the well-informed. Both things are equally fatal to his imagination, as indeed they would be fatal to the imagination of anybody, and in a short time he develops a morbid and unhealthy faculty of truth-telling, begins to verify all statements made in his presence, has no hesitation in contradicting people who are much younger than himself, and often ends by writing novels which are so lifelike that no one can possibly believe in their probability[2]


You are quite delightful, but your views are terribly unsound. I am afraid that you have been listening to the conversation of some one older than yourself. That is always a dangerous thing to do, and if you allow it to degenerate into a habit you will find it absolutely fatal to any intellectual development.[3]


Art is Individualism, and Individualism is a disturbing and disintegrating force. Therein lies its immense value. For what it seeks to disturb is monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine. In Art, the public accept what has been, because they cannot alter it, not because they appreciate it. [4]


“Death is the only thing that ever terrifies me. I hate it.”

“Why?” said the younger man wearily.

“Because … one can survive everything nowadays except that. Death and vulgarity are the only two facts in the nineteenth century that one cannot explain away. Let us have our coffee in the music-room, Dorian. You must play Chopin to me. The man with whom my wife ran away played Chopin exquisitely. Poor Victoria! I was very fond of her. The house is rather lonely without her. Of course, married life is merely a habit, a bad habit. But then one regrets the loss even of one’s worst habits. Perhaps one regrets them the most. They are such an essential part of one’s personality.”[5]

This last passage appears to agree with Proust somewhat: no matter how horrible are all our habits, we wouldn’t be able to psychologically function. We wouldn’t be able to “get by” without them. Memory for Proust is submissive to habit. The most vivid memories are of things most forgotten, and this is because we don’t remember what we already knew.[6] It is like, says Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592), an old book we pick up and thumb through before realizing, “I read this already.”[7] As Proust puts it:

Now our love memories present no exception to the general rules of memory, which in turn are governed by the still more general rules of Habit. And as Habit weakens every impression, what a person recalls to us most vividly is precisely what we had forgotten, because it was of no importance, and had therefore left in full possession of its strength. That is why the better part of our memory exists outside ourselves, in a blatter of rain, in the smell of an unaired room or of the first crackling brushwood fire in a cold grate: wherever, in short, we happen upon what our mind, having no use for it, had rejected, the last treasure that the past has in store, the richest, that which when all our flow of tears seems to have dried at the source can make us weep again. Outside ourselves, did I say; rather within ourselves, but hidden from our eyes in an oblivion more or less prolonged. It is thanks to this oblivion alone that we can from time to time recover the creature that we were, range ourselves face to face with past events as that creature had to face them, suffer afresh because we are no longer ourselves but he, and because he loved what leaves us now indifferent. In the broad daylight of our ordinary memory the images of the past turn gradually pale and fade out of sight, nothing remains of them, we shall never find them again. Or rather we should never find them again had not a few words (such as this ‘Secretary to the Ministry of Posts’) been carefully locked away in oblivion, just as an author deposits in the National Library a copy of a book which might otherwise become unobtainable. [8]

Moreover, for Proust: “in strange places where our sensations have not been numbed by habit, we refresh, we revive an old pain.” [9]

For American philosopher and logician Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914), the habits of humans reflect the patterns of their beliefs. Habits don’t just have meaning: habits are meaning. Habits are the rules of behavior that produce our character:

The feeling of believing is a more or less sure indication of there being established in our nature some habit which will determine our actions. Doubt never has such an effect….

Most frequently doubts arise from some indecision, however momentary, in our action…. The essence of belief is the establishment of a habit…. [The] whole function of thought is to produce habits of action.


To develop [a thing’s] meaning, we have, therefore, simply to determine what habits it produces, for what a thing means is simply what habits it involves.


And what, then, is belief? It is the demi-cadence which closes a musical phrase in the symphony of our intellectual life. We have seen that it has just three properties: First, it is something that we are aware of; second, it appeases the irritation of doubt; and, third, it involves the establishment in our nature of a rule of action, or, say for short, a habit. As it appeases the irritation of doubt, which is the motive for thinking, thought relaxes, and comes to rest for a moment [stasis] when belief is reached. [10]


That which determines us, from given premisses, to draw one inference rather than another, is some habit of mind, whether it be constitutional or acquired.


Thus, both doubt and belief have positive effects upon us, though very different ones. Belief does not make us act at once, but puts us into such a condition that we shall behave in some certain way, when the occasion arises. Doubt has not the least such active effect, but stimulates us to inquiry until it is destroyed. This reminds us of the irritation of a nerve and the reflex action produced thereby; while for the analogue of belief, in the nervous system, we must look to what are called nervous associations—for example, to that habit of the nerves in consequence of which the smell of a peach will make the mouth water.[11]


Attention is the power by which thought at one time is connected with and made to relate to thought at another time; or, to apply the conception of thought as a sign, that it is the pure demonstrative application of a thought-sign…. Attention produces effects upon the nervous system. These effects are habits, or nervous associations.[12]

Finally, compare some remarks from philosopher of religion James Bissett Pratt (1975–1944), who seems to imply that creativity abides in non-belief:

The truth is, non-belief, like belief, draws its strength not only from reason but from authority; in fact, for many enthusiastic students of science the will not to believe has a good deal to do with the result. In certain scientific circles it is not good form to believe in a future life; and the ascetic ideal which would sacrifice selfish interests for the personal values of science also comes into play. Moreover non-belief, like belief, is not merely a product of logical argument, authority, habit, and volition, but is largely influenced also by the imagination; and the peculiarly objective point of view which natural science inculcates and the habit it produces of considering causation and the laws of matter universal and invariable, give a certain cast to the imagination which makes the idea of the survival of bodily death increasingly difficult.[13]


Among all peoples—and the Indians are no exceptions—authority and habit have always been two most important foundations of faith. Moreover, if they regarded nature and the experiences of life, they saw multiplicity and a world of apparently many powers. It was only among the philosophers that reason’s demand for unity was strong enough to overcome all these things.[14]

The subconscious is eminently conservative. And in whatever way you interpret the “subconscious” this remains true. The conservative nature of the physiological is painfully evident to every one who has tried to break a habit.[15]

For Pratt (as well as Wilde) habits are conservative; art is radical. Our habits make us regress, but our imaginations help us progress.



[1] Zagorin, Perez. “Proust for Historians.” New Literary History. Vol. 37, No. 2. (Spring 2006.) 389–423 at 404–05.

[2] Wilde, Oscar. “The Decay of Lying.” The Complete Writings of Oscar Wilde. Vol. VII. NY: The Nottingham Society. 1909. pp. 9–10.

[3] Wilde, Oscar.  “The Critic as Artist: Parts I & II.” Intentions. London: Osgood, McIlvaine, London; New York, NY: Dodd, Mead. 1891. p. 91.

[4] Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism. 1891.

[5] Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray. 1890. “Chapter 19.”

[6] Plato, Meno 79C–86E.

[7] Montaigne, Michel de. Essaies. (Essays.) “On Books.” 1580.

[8] Proust, À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs. (Within a Budding Grove / In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower.) 1919. “Place Names: The Name.”

[9] Proust, Du côté de chez Swann. (Swann’s Way.) 1913. “Swann in Love.”

[10] Peirce, Charles Sanders. “How to Make Our Ideas Clear.” Popular Science Monthly. Vol. 12. (January 1878.) pp. 286–302.

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

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

[13] Pratt, James Bissett. “Some Psychological Aspects of the Belief in Immortality.” Harvard Theological Review. Vol. 12. No. 3. (July 1919.) 294–314 at 300–01.

[14] Pratt, The Psychology of Religious Belief. NY: Macmillan. 1908. p. 93.

[15] Pratt, “The Subconscious and Religion.” Harvard Theological Review. Vol. 6. No. 2. (April 1913.) 209–28 at 224.


Mar 18 2011

First of Three Proposals: Toward a Poetics of Ignornace

See also Second of Three Proposals: Toward a Frankenstein-like Poetics

Third of Three Proposals: Toward Reconciling a Poetics of Ignorance with a Frankensten-like Poetics

1.0 We accept De Quincy’s demarcation[1] for all books in the Library of Babel[2]: There are “books of knowledge” and “books of power.”

1.1 If books of power are not books of knowledge, they are, in some sense, “books of ignorance.”[3]

1.2 A writer who follows (or applies) a poetics of ignorance produces books of ignorance.

1.3 When applying a poetics of ignorance, the writer should not “write what he knows”—on the contrary: he should write what he doesn’t know. As author he must advertise his avoidances and make his text transparent by unveiling, confessing that which he knows not.

2.0 Because books of power are also books of ignorance, whenever an author attempts to beckon (and reckon) Truth, it tends only to bore the reader. This is because generally, truths and beliefs preached by the writer, or portrayed by his characters drive away the reader’s attention. The presence of truth drives a reader’s attention to halt, stop, stay static. Conversely, any ideas unknown to the reader, unfamiliar (novel) ideas to which the reader is ignorant, tend to intrigue the reader.

2.1 “Doubt”, for readers, includes all ideas unknown, unfamiliar, or novel (and intriguing) to them. Doubt is a stimulus for readers—it stimulates their attention, spurs intrigue, births curiosity, channels wonder, and drives their attention to continuing its quarrying.[4] Following a poetics of ignorance allows a writer to cultivate, articulate intriguing doubts that will stimulate readers onward, page after page.

3.0 Writers of books of ignorance must learn to display novelty: hence the name of the literary form, the Novel. Writers must display novelty, not for the sake of notoriety but rather for displaying their own wonderment at that novelty. When a writer acknowledges novelty, she conveys ignorance to her reader. Anything the writer considers novel must be, in some sense, unfamiliar, because those things unfamiliar to her are the things to which she is ignorant and curious about.

3.1 According to Peirce,[5] and contrary to Descartes, the writer cannot know her unknowns (or the things to which she is ignorant)—but she can know her doubts:

It cost me much Trouble to explain to him what I was doing; for the Inhabitants have not the least Idea of Books or Literature…. It was with some Difficulty, and by the help of many Signs, that I brought him to understand me. He replied, That I must needs be mistaken, or that I said the thing which was not. (For they have no Word in their Language to express Lying or Falsehood.)

––Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1726), IV, iii.

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

––Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus LogicoPhilosophicus (1921), § 7.0.

[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns––the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

––Donald Rumsfield, Department of Defense News Brief for February 12, 2002.


[1] De Quincy, Thomas. [“The Literature of Knowledge and the Literature of Power.”] a.k.a. “Letters to a Young Man whose Education has been neglected.” London Magazine, March, 1823. Masson, x. 46. Quoted from De Quincy’s Literary Criticism. ed. Helen Darbishire. 1909. H. Frowde, London.

[2] In his fictional short story “The Library of Babel” (1941) Borges begins: “The universe (which others call the Library).” (See Ficciones, 1956. Trans. and ed. by Anthony Kerrigan, Grove Press. 1962. pp. 79–88.)

Borges elsewhere calls it “the utopia of the Total Library” and that it contains:

Everything: but for every sensible line or accurate fact there would be millions of meaningless cacophonies, verbal farragoes, and babblings…. The vast, contradictory Library, whose vertical wildernesses of books run the incessant risk of changing into others that affirm, deny, and confuse everything like a delirious god. (Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Total Library.” (1939). Selected Nonfictions. Ed. and trans. by Eliot Weinberger. Penguin Books. 1999. pp. 214–216.)

[3] De Quincy claims that one kind of opposite to a “book of knowledge” would be a “book of pleasure” or amusement, yet he finds a truer antithesis (or opposite nature) to be a “book of power.” The true nature of our First Proposal seems to be a bit “Gnostic” considering we have set gnosis (knowledge) against agnosis (ignorance).

[4] From C. S. Peirce:

“We generally know when we wish to ask a question and when we wish to pronounce a judgment, for there is a dissimilarity between the sensation of doubting and that of believing…. The irritation of doubt causes a struggle to attain a state of belief.”

––The Fixation of Belief (1877).

“Most frequently doubts arise from some indecision, however momentary, in our action.”

––How to Make Our Ideas Clear (1878).

While doubt makes a reader, on the other hand, gout makes the writer. At this point a “poetics of pain” may come into play—one that has elsewhere been articulated by Nietzsche in his Genealogy of Morals (1877).

[5] From Peirce’s Some Consequences of Our Four Capacities (1868):

In some, or all of these respects, most modern philosophers have been, in effect, Cartesians. Now without wishing to return to scholasticism, it seems to me that modern science and modern logic require us to stand upon a very different platform from this.

1. We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy. These prejudices are not to be dispelled by a maxim, for they are things which it does not occur to us can be questioned. Hence this initial skepticism will be a mere self-deception, and not real doubt; and no one who follows the Cartesian method will ever be satisfied until he has formally recovered all those beliefs which in form he has given up. It is, therefore, as useless a preliminary as going to the North Pole would be in order to get to Constantinople by coming down regularly upon a meridian. A person may, it is true, in the course of his studies, find reason to doubt what he began by believing; but in that case he doubts because he has a positive reason for it, and not on account of the Cartesian maxim. Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.

2. The same formalism appears in the Cartesian criterion, which amounts to this: “Whatever I am clearly convinced of, is true.” If I were really convinced, I should have done with reasoning and should require no test of certainty. But thus to make single individuals absolute judges of truth is most pernicious. The result is that metaphysicians will all agree that metaphysics has reached a pitch of certainty far beyond that of the physical sciences; — only they can agree upon nothing else. In sciences in which men come to agreement, when a theory has been broached it is considered to be on probation until this agreement is reached. After it is reached, the question of certainty becomes an idle one, because there is no one left who doubts it. We individually cannot reasonably hope to attain the ultimate philosophy which we pursue; we can only seek it, therefore, for the community of philosophers. Hence, if disciplined and candid minds carefully examine a theory and refuse to accept it, this ought to create doubts in the mind of the author of the theory himself.

3. Philosophy ought to imitate the successful sciences in its methods, so far as to proceed only from tangible premisses which can be subjected to careful scrutiny, and to trust rather to the multitude and variety of its arguments than to the conclusiveness of any one. Its reasoning should not form a chain which is no stronger than its weakest link, but a cable whose fibers may be ever so slender, provided they are sufficiently numerous and intimately connected.

4. Every unidealistic philosophy supposes some absolutely inexplicable, unanalyzable ultimate; in short, something resulting from mediation itself not susceptible of mediation. Now that anything is thus inexplicable can only be known by reasoning from signs. But the only justification of an inference from signs is that the conclusion explains the fact. To suppose the fact absolutely inexplicable, is not to explain it, and hence this supposition is never allowable…. We have no conception of the absolutely incognizable. These propositions cannot be regarded as certain; and, in order to bring them to a further test, it is now proposed to trace them out to their consequences.