Thursday, September 29, 2011

In Praise of Bad Manners

Now stay with me here, this is a bit nuanced: impoliteness can be wielded to good effect in good causes by people who also know how to be very polite. Not entirely unlike the way that dissonance and noise can add extra flavor to music by musicians who can tune their instruments well and know all the chords and changes and modes. A great part of Mark Twain's

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Last Night's Dream

This dream was in two parts: first I was in Western Canada. I didn't know my location more specifically than that. A kind young local Western Canadian man had offered to lead me to Eastern Canada, which was closer to my home here in the Eastern US. We were traveling on foot, but it didn't seem to occur to me that it would take a long time to walk from Western Canada to Eastern Canada.

At first we were walking along a scenic sandy trail along a mountain ridge lined with tall pines. Then we walked through a huge railway depot with many tracks. I looked up at a huge concrete rail overpass and it began to dawn on me, very faintly, that there were more effecient ways to get to Eatern Canada than walking. Rail travel, for example.

Then we were on a narrow twisting street lined with small houses. Then we were inside one of those houses, but this house was very large, with many, many small to medium-sized rooms, arranged in a pattern so labyrinthene that I couldn't find my way out of the house, which was all I wanted to do anymore. I no longer completely trusted my young guide. I wasn't even sure whether he had broken into this house, which would mean we were trespassing and that he was just getting me into trouble and only pretending to help me. Then the owner of the house appeared, an older, somewhat heavy gentleman, and although he too was acting friendly, I didn't know whether he was being sincere either. I also had no idea whether he and my young guide knew each other and were involved in one and the same charade.

Then the dream morphed into the second part, which was all about white powder in clear zip-lock plastic bags, a couple of cups of powder in each bag, making them about a third full. One of these bags each had been given to several different people, and they had been told only to handle the situation. The only difference I could see between the bags was that the zip-lock seal was a different color on each one. The people who had been given responsibility for the bags each seemed to assume that the powder might be dangerous. They all put on latex gloves. Each bag was in a different room. It didn't seem to be the older gentleman's house anymore: these rooms were furnished sparsely and looked like they were in a commercial building. Everybody was scared about the powder in the bags. Nobody really seemed to know exactly how to find out what the the powder was. Then we were told that the powder was harmless, and I woke up.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Seriously, What's the Deal With Spinoza?

There appears to be no edition of his works in print except for a very small (in number of copies) and expensive one published in Holland which you can't get except directly from the publisher. I'm not talking about translations. By "edition" I mean a publication of the original untranslated works. So in Spinoza's case that means a few odds and ends written in Dutch and the rest in Latin. Even in this age when accelerating publishing technology is allowing reprints of pre-copyright books to crop up everywhere like dandelions, you can't even find a reprint of untranslated Spinoza on Amazon except for a volume of posthumous odds and ends of little interest to many folks other than hardcore Spinoza specialists, which the big dumb machines of the reprinting publishers obviously found only by chance. Apparently no editions of his works ever were widely distributed. Yes, translations of Spinoza's works are everywhere. But what on Earth are the translators working from? Are they organized into large groups, each one passing around a single copy of the Ethica or the Tractatus? (Yes, that image is a paraphrased theft from Gaddis. Always steal from the best.)

I myself finally found a copy of each of those works, the Ethica and the Tractatus, on Google Books, which the local university library was able to make into conventional books for me using their Espresso Book Machine. But even those editions on Google Books were poorly printed, so my copies are full of electronically-reproduced smudges and illegibilities.

I went to the philosophy section of that University library, and found, as one would expect, several, nay dozens of square yards of shelf space each of critical editions of Kant, Leibniz, Descartes, Nietzsche. That's the shelf space occupied by the editions, before we get to the voluminous, and I'm sure mostly tedious, I wouldn't know and I won't, life's too short and there's too much actual philosophy, commentary. Schopenhauer is somewhat fucked over in comparison, as he and the rest of us probably would expect -- but would we really expect this to be the extent of the library's holdings of editions, of untranslated works of Spinoza, a philosopher who holds a central place in the work of Leibnitz, Kant and Nietzsche and is even grudgingly granted a central place by the nastily antisemetic Schopenhauer?

Yes, we would, if we had spent as much time as I have looking for such editions in all corners of the Earth. Otherwise we would be shocked. Perhaps even slightly outraged. Seriously. That's it. Eight small-to-medium-sized volumes, the four green ones to the left in the photo, the gray and black one in the middle and the three black ones to the right. All eight volumes old, the newest ones almost a century old, all printed on cheap acidic paper which has long since started to crumble. Because I'd been looking so long everywhere, that was about exactly what I'd expected to find. That's par for the course.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Credit Where Credit is Due?

Reading Nietzsche is... Well. Is there a proper English translation of umwerfend? I have some differences with him: as I've said several times on theis blog and repeatedly elsewhere, I think that everything he says in his philosophical works about women is wrong. Plain wrong. (And most of what he says about war. Keep in mind when reading a passage about war by Nietzsche that he was never in one. Closest he ever came was working in a military hospital during the Franco-Prussian War.) He almost always refers to them as one group. He addresses individual male human beings from various places and times, individual ancient Greeks, individual Frenchman and Jews and Englishmen of his own times and a century or two earlier, individual Germans, and his comments about various countries and cultures are clearly based upon his assessment of these individuals.

With the wimmins, it's the other way around: he speaks of the entire gender at once, and on the rare, very rare occasions when he takes an individual woman to task, usually one of the famous Georges contemporary with him, Eliot or Sand, his condemnation is clearly based on his strange notions about the entire gender, such as, they've got no real business being creative artists and are treacherous and primitive and sooooo mean and will just mess everything up.

I'm referring only to Nietzsche's philosophical works. In his letters he's often completely, startlingly different, because there he's often talking about and even to individual human beings who happen to be wimmins, and talks about and to them in a reasonable way for which the philosophical works have left the reader entirely unprepared.

And so the Foreword to Nietzsche's Jenseits Von Gut Und Boesestarts off with remarks about women -- about truth actually, but saying "Imagine that truth were a woman" -- which just make me groan and wince. Put it this way, between Nietzsche and me, at least one of us is disastrously wrong about women. At least. But the Foreword winds up talking about what the book, in my opinion, is actually more about: the Western philosophical tradition, in its entirety, from the ancient Greeks down to 1885 when Nietzsche was finishing this book:

"Aber der Kampf gegen Plato, oder, um es verständlicher und für's 'Volk' zu sagen, der Kampf gegen den christlich-kirchlichen Druck von Jahrtausenden —- denn Christenthum ist Platonismus für's 'Volk' -— hat in Europa eine prachtvolle Spannung des Geistes geschaffen, wie sie auf Erden noch nicht da war: mit einem so gespannten Bogen kann man nunmehr nach den fernsten Zielen schiessen."

("But the fight against Plato, or, to say it more plainly and for the 'people,' the fight against thousands of years of pressure from Christianity and the Church -- because Christianity is Platonic philosophy for the 'people' -- has produced in Europe a magnificent tautness of the mind, the likes of which never before existed on Earth. With a bow drawn so tightly, one can now shoot at the farthest targets.")

There are things Nietzsche wrote which I just completely reject, which I don't bother even considering any more, such as the accusation that the womenfolk only screw up art when they participate in it, and then there are passages like the one I just cited, which astound me and make me stop and clutch my munkee head and ask myself, Now what if that's true? First, what if it's really true that, from a philosophical perspective, Christianity is basically a dumbed-down, Readers' Digest version of Plato? And further, what if it's true that certain achievements made in traditionally-Christian parts of the Earth -- such as space exploration, talk about "shooting at the farthest targets" -- were not accomplished in spite of the stifling effects of Christianity, but actually because of them? Because people had to fight so hard for so long against Christianity just to maintain any sort of tolerable life, and the fight made some people's minds so strong, as if their spirits had had to fight a giant from the WWF all day every day from AD 380 until now, that this and that industrial and scientific revolution was just an incidental by-product of all that intensive, non-stop training, as if Christianity had inadvertently, unintentionally created among its opponents Navy Seals or Army Rangers of the mind?

They say that centuries' worth of strict censorship in Russia helped to create the concentrated prose of Turgenevand Dostoyevsky.An Internet forum which allows no more than 250 words per post does train one in pithiness of style. Could Nietzsche be right here? Is gratitude due here, in one of the strangest, least-expected places?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

2 Mutch Stoopid Maik Munkee Brane Hert

I'm sure that the university authorities who prevented David Hume's appointment to the chair of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh, and the churchmen and scholars who declined to look through Galileo's telescope because Scripture and Church doctrine already told them all they needed to know about the heavenly bodies and their motion relative to the Earth, had long and impressive lists of titles and academic awards.

I was about to say that to someone in answer to his listing some of the academic titles and awards of a professor and author of a book opposing "conflict theory," the crazy notion that at times some opposition between science and religion, specifically Christianty, has hindered the advance of the former. But I decided not to feed that troll, so I'm here instead.

I had never before heard of conflict theory. I suspect that the term may be used mostly by its opponents. Those of us who believe that water is wet don't generally have a name for that belief. I have not heard of a "wetness theory." It necessarily follows that I have not heard of any school of thought defending the "wetness theory," and that if two or three people opposed the notion that water is wet and attributed it to recent cultural bias, they could make a case for themselves that in their field their conclusions were unopposed, simply because they would be in sole possession of the field.

Anyway, the award-laden professor admired by this troll not only opposes "conflict theory," but -- according to the troll, anyway. I haven't read the professor's book -- asserts that no historian subscribes to it. No historian believes that there is an endemic conflict between Christianity and science. To give the professor and author the benefit of the doubt, perhaps in his book he examines the work of a definite group of historians, presumably most or all of them decent conservative Catholics like himself, and determined that all the historians within that group oppose the "Conflict theory." I don't want to make the mistake of assuming that an author is as ill-informed as an enthusiastic and perhaps unwary reader asserts him to be.

"Videns autem diabolus templa daemonum deseri et in nomen liberantis Mediatoris currere genus humanum, haereticos mouit, qui sub uocabulo Christiano doctrinae resisterent Christianae, quasi possent indifferenter sine ulla correptione haberi in ciuitate Dei, sicut ciuitas confusionis indifferenter habuit philosophos inter se diuersa et aduersa sentientes."

("And now the devil, seeing the demonic temples deserted and humanity rushing to the name of the liberating Savior, has caused the heretics who call themselves Christians to resist the Christian doctrine, as if they were to be tolerated indifferently and without correction in the city of God, as the the philosophers who were of diverse and adverse opinions had been tolerated in the city of confusion.")

That's Augustine of Hippo, De civitate dei, XVIII, 51, describing the change in society as the Christians took over. The city of confusion, the Roman Empire before the Christian clampdown, had tolerated diversity among the philosophers. That had been fine for Babylon, but it was over with now. The deserted "demonic temples" weren't some abstraction, they were the old pagan temples, and they were deserted because they were being torn down. And the Christian authorities were going to see to it that the old diversity of religion didn't live on in a diversity of opinion. Christianity's totalitarian attack upon learning and freedom of thought has hardly ever been more clearly and chillingly expressed than here by this supposed "doctor of the Church," this supposed "learned man."

But of course it's perfectly obvious how stifling it is to insist that every thought conform to Christianity, that every theory be forced through that narrow funnel. We're as familiar with it as we are with the wetness of water. We're as familiar with it as we are with the fools and raving lunatics loaded down with academic awards and piety who thwart science and common sense at every turn. We don't have to strain to imagine what Augustine was like, his type is very depressingly familiar -- among others, there are the many academic fools and lunatics who praise him and share his hatred of unruly, unchristian freedom of the mind. What's still largely strange and unimaginable to us is the degree of freedom of intellect and opinion, the degree of tolerance, which Augustine and his cronies crushed.