Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category
A reader writes:
Dear Sir: A friend recommended your book to me a while ago and it literally took me over a year to read! It is so philosophical and I’m not an abstract person. But you made me think, I will give you that. My question is, how do YOU define philosophy?
Dear Paul S: The definition of philosophy — judging, at least, from very nearly every philosophical dictionary on the planet — has confounded philosophers for centuries, the concept being “too large,” it is sometimes said, to properly capture in concise fashion. Yet at the same time, in all branches of philosophy, minutia is cataloged to complete weariness.
This fake problem is nothing more than skepticism and its little bitch postmodernism running amok again. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, for instance, a thoroughly postmodern compilation, says this:
“Some readers might be surprised to find that there is no entry simply on philosophy itself. This is partly because no short definition will do.”
That statement — and all others like it — is flatly false.
Philosophy is this: the science of rudiments and foundations. It is the study of fundamentals.
A philosophy is an organized system of ideas and arguments.
Etymologically, the word, as you know, comes from the Greek term philia (meaning love) or philos (meaning friend or lover); and sophia (meaning wisdom).
A fellow by the name of Diogenes Laertius claims that the term “philosopher” was coined by Pythagoras, in place of the word “sophist,” which meant “wise man.” But Diogenes Laertius was squirrelly, and his Pythagorean claim is dubious.
Oxford — evidently not as equivocal as Cambridge — defines philosophy thus:
“The investigation of the most general and abstract features of the world and the categories with which we think, in order to lay bare their foundations and presuppositions.”
Not bad, not bad. Better still, however, is Penguin’s philosophy dictionary, which says that philosophy “studies the most fundamental and general concepts and principles involved in thought, action, and reality.”
And yet the best of them all comes not from a philosophical dictionary, exactly, but from a man named Désiré-Félicien-François-Joseph Mercier — a.k.a. Cardinal Mercier — the late nineteenth-century thinker, who spoke well when he spoke thus:
“[Philosophy] does not profess to be a particularized science [but] ranks above them, dealing in an ultimate fashion with their respective objects, inquiring into their connexions and relations of these connexions.”
Philosophy, Mercier continues, “deserves above all to be called the most general science” (A Manual of Modern Scholastic Philosophy).
Lexically, here’s all one really needs to know:
Philosophy comes first, and last. Philosophy is the alpha and the omega. It is the most fundamental science because it studies the foundations of all subsequent knowledge, and that is why all the other sciences depend upon it: because knowledge forms a hierarchy.
For humans, to live is to think.
Philosophy provides an ultimate context — a gauge — for human knowledge. It systematizes the proper methods by which we are able to know.
And that is the definition of philosophy.
Thank you for writing, and thank you for reading my book.
“To produce a mighty book you must choose a mighty theme.”
Said Herman Melville.
And it’s true: mighty themes are one of the distinguishing characteristics of timeless art.
What is theme? In literature, theme is the meaning that the events of your story add up to. The events are the plot.
Not all stories have a theme. These are the stories that time almost invariably sinks.
Soap operas, for example, which possess plenty of plot, have no theme.
Some of the great books in world literature are great primarily because of their themes. Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, which does not translate well, is great because of its theme: the human potential which resides within us all.
But there is one other element to durable literature, another reason that some art is timeless, even when the theme is not mighty: That reason is depth of style.
Style is The How. It is presentation.
Here, for example, we can observe drastic stylistic differences in artworks whose theme and subject-matter are essentially identical:
I often cite in literature the Englishman Anthony Burgess, whom I admire, but who never, in my opinion, wrote a great book. Yet his literature, much of it, endures and will endure, for one reason alone: his writing style (at its best — not, incidentally, evidenced in his most famous book) is so sophisticated and so strong:
“This was the day before the night when the knives of disappointment struck.”
But the greatest example of timelessness in literature is unquestionably Shakespeare, whose themes are so often undistinguished and even trite. The power, though, of his writing style alone — what Nabokov called the “verbal-poetic texture of Shakespeare” — is what makes Shakespeare’s literature last.
“I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows.”
That is a durable style.
In a lecture he delivered at Cornell University, Vladimir Nabokov said this:
“A work of art shouldn’t make you think, it should make you shiver.”
And yet in reply, one must obviously ask: what about those of us who actually like for a book to make us think? What about those of us who genuinely enjoy, for example, Gilbert and Ernest and Oscar Wilde’s aesthetic dialogues? Are we in error for getting satisfaction from this? And is Oscar Wilde in error for writing it?
The answer is of course no, and here’s why:
While it is unquestionably true that a work of art, no matter its genre, must appeal to something real in the body of human experience, there is nonetheless within that body of human experience an enormous range of diversity, and complexity — and one person’s nightmare is another person’s dream.
And, as a matter of fact, some of my very favorite characters — Nikolai Stavrogin, Natasha Fillipovna, Ivan Karamazov, Jean Valjean, Rachel from Bladerunner, Tom Regan, Gilliat, Dominque Francon — they leave a great many of my friends and acquaintances completely cold.
Characters, it is also true, are the soul of every story, and I don’t know of anyone even passingly acquainted with the subject who would seriously argue that readers must on some level connect with the characters. But the issue isn’t quite so cut-and dry. Why? Because people (like characters) are diverse and complicated — which is to say, we have different values, and our brains operate on different levels, in different ways.
The difference between the cynic and the skeptic is the difference between epistemology and ethics. It is the difference between brain and body.
Skepticism is an epistemological word.
Cynicism is ethical.
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with knowledge.
Ethics is the branch of philosophy that deals with morality.
The Greek word skopein — from which the English word “scope” derives — means “to observe, aim at, examine.” It’s related to the Greek skeptesthai, which means “to look out.”
Skepsis and skeptikos are also both Greek and mean “to look; to enquire; to aim.”
Those are the etymological roots of the word skeptic.
Skeptic — or, if you’re in the United Kingdom, sceptic, the difference being purely one of form and not substance — has its origins in the Ancient Greek thinkers who developed arguments which purport to show that knowledge is either impossible (Academic Scepticism) or that there is never sufficient data to tell if knowledge is possible (Pyrrhonian Scepticism).
Academic Scepticism rejects certainty but accepts degrees of probability. In this sense, Academic Scepticism anticipates elements of present-day quantum theory. The Academic Sceptics rejected certainty on the grounds that our senses (from which all knowledge ultimately derives) are unreliable, and reason therefore is unreliable since, say the Academic Sceptics, we can find no guaranteed standard by which to gauge whether our convictions are true. This claim rests upon the notion that humans can never know anything that is absolutely false.
The roots of Academic Scepticism are found in Socrates famous apothegm: “All I know is that I know nothing.” The word “Academic” in “Academic Scepticism” refers to Plato’s Academy, third century B.C.At around this same time, a fellow by the name of Pyrrho of Elis (c.360-275 B.C.), who was connected with the Methodic School of Medicine in Alexandria, founded a school, which soon came to be known as Pyrrhonian Scepticism. Pyrrho’s followers — most notably a loyal student named Timon (c.315-225 B.C.) — were called Pyrrhonists. None of Pyrrho’s actual writings have survived, and the theoretical formulation of his philosophy comes mainly from a man named Aenesidemus (c.100-40 B.C.).
The essential difference between these two schools of Ancient Greek scepticism is this:
The Pyrrhonists regarded even the claim “I know only that I know nothing” as claiming too much knowledge. There’s even a legend that Pyrrho himself refused to make a definitive judgment of knowledge even if “chariots were about to strike him dead,” and his students allegedly rescued him a number of different times because he refused to make commitments.
To this day the term Pyrrhonist is synonymous with the term sceptic, which is also synonymous with the term agnostic (a meaning “without”; gnosis meaning “knowledge”).
It’s perhaps worth pointing out as well that the word agnostic in this context was, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, coined by Thomas Henry Huxley, in the spring of 1869, at a party, in which there was reportedly “much licking and sucking.” According to R. H. Hutton, who was there: “Huxley took it from St. Paul’s mention of the altar to ‘the Unknown God.’”
In truth, however, the word agnostic was most likely first used by a woman named Isabel Arundell, in a letter to Huxley, who stole it from her without credit.
The Oxford English Dictionary (Unabridged, 2004) lists four meanings of the term skeptic, which are as follows:
1. one who, like Pyrrho and his followers in Greek antiquity, doubts the possibility of real knowledge of any kind; one who holds that there are no adequate grounds for certainty. Example: “I am apt to think there never yet has really been such a monster in the world as a sceptic” (Tucker, 1768).
2. one who doubts the validity of what claims to be knowledge … popularly, one who maintains a doubting attitude with reference to some particular question or statement; one who is habitually inclined to doubt rather than to believe any assertion or apparent fact that comes before him. Example: “If every sceptic in Theology may teach his follies, there can be no religion” (Samuel Johnson, 1779).
3. one who doubts without absolutely denying the truth of the Christian religion or important party of it; loosely, an unbeliever in Christianity. Example: “In listening to the arguments of a sceptic, you are breathing a poisonous air” (R.B. Girdlestone, 1863).
4. occasionally, from its etymological sense: a truth seeker; an inquirer who has not yet arrived at definite conclusions. Example: “A sceptic, then, is one who shades his eyes in order to look steadfastly at a thing.” (M.D. Conway, 1870).
The anthropogenic global warming debate has catapulted this latter definition to the forefront, yet many purists, like me, who know the philosophical roots of the word skepticism, are not always comfortable using it in this way — mainly because it’s so at odds with the philosophical meaning of the term. Skepticism has over 2,000 years of heavy philosophical baggage, and to call yourself a skeptic in the philosophical sense entails much more than one “who shades his eyes in order to look steadfastly at a thing.”
Language, however, is a living, breathing organism which will and properly should evolve, and it would be very bad indeed to say that skeptic in this latter sense is incorrect. And yet there is another word for this type of skepticism, a word which is much more precise and much less laden: Evidentialism.
True skepticism — which is to say, agnosticism, which is to say, Pyrrhonism — rejects the possibility of all knowledge, and yet it is precisely this that the scientist seeks, and finds: knowledge.
The philosophical skeptic is defined by three words: “I don’t know.”
The scientific skeptic, on the other hand, is (theoretically) defined by rational inquiry — someone who investigates with a disposition to be persuaded and yet does not (in the words of perhaps the most famous skeptical inquirer of them all) “insensibly twist facts to fit theories, instead of twisting theories to fit facts.”
A cynic, on the other hand, is someone who doesn’t believe goodness is possible.
Cynicism is a moral concept, not epistemologic. Which is to say, it doesn’t have anything to do with knowledge.
The word cynicism originated with a Greek fellow by the name of Antisthenes (not to be confused with Antihistamines, which are something else entirely), who was once a student of Socrates.
Antisthenes had a notorious contempt for human merit and human pleasure, and that is why to this day the word cynic denotes a sneer.
The cynic rejects goodness.
The skeptic rejects knowledge.
That is the difference between the cynic and the skeptic.
Both words, it should also be noted, do however have one very important thing in common: from a philosophical standpoint, they’re each stupendously incorrect.
Note: this article was commissioned and first appeared, in slightly different form, at the Australian scientist Dr. Jennifer Marohasy’s website. The comments there — the attack — in response to this article are well worth reading.
Poetry is a subset of literature, the art form of language, but it also legitimately belongs to another art: music.
Poetry is rhyme and rhythm, cadence and count, meter and metric. Poetry is prosody. It is scansion. It is versification. Those are the elements of poetry that make it a part of the musical.
But poetry is primarily a branch of literature, and the two main elements of poetry are style and theme. (Note: There is such a thing as narrative poetry, which is poetry that tells a story, but those two elements — storytelling and verse — combine poorly.)
It’s important to point out that the word “poetry” is not synonymous with the word “poem.”
Poetry is general; poems are specific.
All poems are in theory poetic, but not all poetry is a poem.
Novels, essays, memoirs, chronicles, short stories, and virtually every other form of prose can be poetic. For example, “The multitudinous seas incarnadine” is poetic, but it’s not a poem.
A poem, by definition, is a self-contained piece, of varying length, with a certain meter, rhythm, and style, all of which combine to convey a theme. A poem can rhyme or not.
The definition of poetry, on the other hand, has confounded writers and philosophers for centuries. Leo Tolstoy captured this well when he wrote:
Where the boundary between prose and poetry lies I shall never be able to understand. The question is raised in manuals of style, yet the answer to it lies beyond me. Poetry is verse: prose is not verse. Or else poetry is everything with the exception of business documents and school books.
But even “business documents and school books” could — at least, in theory — be poetic.
So what is poetry?
Poetry is style: stylized language.
Poetry is concentrated speech. It is density of expression.
Poetry is language at its best.
Poetry is writer’s writing.
Poetry is not, contrary to popular belief, pretentious or flowery language — or, at any rate, good poetry is not.
Poetry is technique. Poetry is skill. Poetry is metaphor.
Poetry is the beauty of language.