Month: June 2014

To Read is to Listen

As Georges Clemenceau once famously said, war is too important to be left to the generals. Sometimes I despair that something of the sort must equally be said about philosophy: it is too important to be left to academics. True, generals kill their enemies, academics parse texts–one can only smile. However, if the phrase “life of the mind” is to be understood in all its fullness, the juxtaposition is apposite. What is required from academics, and generals, is a sturdier wisdom than what either seems able to muster.

Recently I was put in mind of this when perusing the entry on Albert Camus in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The section on The Myth of Sisyphus begins with a quotation from its first paragraph, one of the most provocative openings I have ever read in a philosophical essay. Here is Camus’s text in the standard English translation by Justin O’Brien, whose great merit is that it hews closely to the French original:

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest—whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.

Here is how the writer of the SEP entry quotes this seminal text:

“There is only one really serious philosophical problem,” Camus says, “and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.”

Notice not only the egregious emendation at the end, but also the change to a more casual tone. Far from arbitrary or justified by a need for economy, these changes support the unmistakably academic tenor of the parsing that follows:

One might object that suicide is neither a “problem” nor a “question,” but an act. A proper, philosophical question might rather be: “Under what conditions is suicide warranted?” And a philosophical answer might explore the question, “What does it mean to ask whether life is worth living?” as William James did in The Will to Believe.

From here on, after the unjustified and self-satisfied “gotcha!” that declares that suicide is neither a problem nor a question but an act, and the condescending rephrasing of Camus into acceptable “philosophical” form, the entry takes off into a series of well-formed propositions followed by lucidly stated conclusions—too bad it all has so little to do with Camus.

Let’s agree that to evaluate the soundness of an argument it is important first to parse it, that is, to understand all its premises and test whether its conclusions are valid. This is no less true of an essay on logic than on suicide. A good reader, however, also listens to the text by developing a keen ear for rhetorical precedence and by paying close attention to historical context.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus ends his first paragraph with this key observation: “These are facts the heart can feel; yet they call for careful study before they become clear to the intellect.” The sentence echoes one of Pascal’s most famous passages in the Pensées: “The heart has its reasons which reason itself does not know” (Sellier 680). For a reader attuned to rhetorical precedence and historical context, the text now opens up, disclosing a rich web of meanings not possible to glean from a mere parsing of the argument. This attunement to precedence and context could further point the reader to Pascal’s The Art of Persuasion, with its fuller examination of what he calls the “powers” of the heart and the mind, both gateways to knowledge.

In other words, there is in the background of The Myth of Sisyphus an unstated epistemology contextualizing fundamental ideas which, if I were to guess, Camus assumed his reader knew.

The flowering of philosophical thought sometimes depends on the discovery of the resonance between a later text and an earlier one. For this, it is necessary to be keenly attuned to both texts, to listen with care. This bit of wisdom is lost on the writer of the SEP entry, who no sooner is he done quoting Camus than he goes on to a supposedly clearer William James. Instead of care for the text, there is complacency and abandon. Philosophy is indeed too important to be left to tin-eared academics.

“A home” is not “Home”

Ordinary language is a continual source of insight. As Heidegger says in Building Dwelling Thinking:

It is language that tells us about the nature of a thing, provided that we respect language’s own nature. . . Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man.

In this essay, Heidegger explores what it means to dwell, how it differs from building, and what is the relationship between the two. While dwelling is achieved by means of building, not every building is a dwelling. He arrives at some of his conclusions by exploring the etymology of the word Bauen, German for building, demonstrating his method of analyzing language to discover how language defines us, not the other way around.

Oak Barn (Photo: Nancy Moore)

An uncanny example–I say uncanny because it is so apt, yet surely unintended–of how ordinary language captures the distinction between dwelling and building, while revealing something about us, is in a genre of publishing known as “shelter magazines,” defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “Of or designating publications whose subject matter is the home, esp. interior design, architecture, etc.”

In ordinary language, these publications are known collectively–and pejoratively–as “real estate porn.” Shelter magazines are big, glossy, expensive and ubiquitous, and endure much by the same means as pornography: their thrust is pleasure, their raw material physicality, the stimuli are sensual, and the end goal is satisfaction. The unflattering association is thus not without merit, and aptly captured by the phrase.

For all that, like porn, shelter magazines fall short of their ultimate goal–to satisfy. Why? The answer is captured by keeping firmly in mind the difference between the particularity of “a home” and the more universal idea of “home.” The former is an edifice. It is enough for it to be functional and structurally sound. The latter is the locus of dwelling. It transcends functionality and soundness as it satisfies them. To dwell is constitutive of being human, it is a form of “being-in-the-world.” We strive for something we call home, which, depending on the trajectory of one’s life, is either a return to a place of origin or an arrival at a destination. There is where we dwell or hope to dwell. The most a shelter magazine can offer is an image of a home, a shelter, something that can only suggest, at best, the possibility of true dwelling.

Mediterranean Irony

A recent opinion piece by Roger Cohen in The New York Times, about goings-on at the Bank of England, put me in mind of a flavor of pessimism not obviously associated with England. Let’s call it Mediterranean irony. Here is Cohen’s opening paragraph:

Guildhall at the heart of the City can be a lulling sort of place after a long day. The statuary and vaulted timber ceiling of the medieval great hall lead the eye to wander and the mind to muse on Britain’s strangest quirk–its centuries of continuity. Grace is said, claret is served, glasses clink and dreaminess sets in. A keynote speech from a central banker is all that is required to complete the soporific effect.

Here’s an example of Mediterranean irony, by Albert Camus, a master of the form:

It struck me that I’d better see about dinner. I had been leaning so long on the back of my chair, looking down, that my neck hurt when I straightened myself up. I went down, bought some bread and spaghetti, did my cooking, and ate my meal standing. I’d intended to smoke another cigarette at my window, but the night had turned rather chilly and I decided against it. As I was coming back, after shutting the window, I glanced at the mirror and saw reflected in it a corner of my table with my spirit lamp and some bits of bread beside it. It occurred to me that somehow I’d got through another Sunday, that Mother now was buried, and tomorrow I’d be going back to work as usual. Really, nothing in my life had changed.

As in all forms of irony, the meaning  is hidden or oblique. The specific difference in Mediterranean irony, however, is that a happening of some moment is buried in a desert of ordinariness, in the barrenness of the everyday–a central banker at the “soporific” Bank of England delivers a policy speech that impacts the lives of millions around the globe; Meursault buries his mother in what turns out to be just another tedious Sunday.

Examples of Mediterranean irony show up everywhere–from Montaigne to Camus and well beyond–once you develop an ear for it. I’m not sure this is a blessing, especially if you think as I do that one of the greatest perils of our age is nihilism, but it is certainly one of the many gifts left us by the endlessly creative spirit of Mediterranean culture.