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Monday, March 22, 2010

Une plainte

The authors of my French textbook seem to believe that the vast majority of people who take French for Reading are physiciens atomiques who would enjoy translating 200 pages of sample French sentences about metals, molecules, and “des disciplines sévères de la recherche expérimentale.”

C'est faux. Everyone in the class is a humanities grad student. No one cares about the atmosphere of Venus. No one even knows what half the stuff means in English.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Elsewhere, I may appear to be productive, but it is all a facade

Forgot to link an article from last fall, and one from this winter, which was written last spring.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Some primary source difficulties

Huh? Ideas about early modern poetry, anyone? Withywindle?

Saturday, March 06, 2010

On modern marginalia

A question that has been bugging me all year: what is the meaning of the ubiquitous marginal marking in library books that consists of a penciled-in vertical line and a check mark next to a passage? The vertical line I can imagine is a note that the passage is important, but what is the check--a doubly important passage? A passage the book's former reader cited or memorized successfully? Does anyone mark their books like this anymore? Is this like an academic version of the mysterious phenomenon of sneakers hanging on electrical lines in cities, whose meaning is explained by 20 conflicting urban legends?

Additional question: Is there an inverse correlation between bubble-letter handwriting and intelligence? Prompted by insipidity of the marginalia in my used copy of A Letter Concerning Toleration, which includes the note, "Interlap between gov't and religion" next to a passage about the supremacy of the civil magistrate.

Finally, a prescient footnote (almost marginalia) on blogging from Rousseau: "I like, says Montaigne, to discuss, but only with but a few men and for my own sake. For I find it to be a most unbecoming profession for a man of honor to serve as a Spectacle for the Great and wantonly to display one's mind and one's prattling." Miss Self-Important: wanton man of dishonor.

UPDATE: Spoke too soon about bubble-letter stupidity. Re-reading my own copy of the First and Second Discourses, I have found such gems as, "state of nature seems pretty pimpin'--why leave?" and conclude that all marginalia is ultimately a form of self-humiliation.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

All my ideas have already been had, but my having them refutes the previous havers

The despair of having any original ideas that has plagued me this year continues apace with my discovery yesterday that, after all that stubborn effort last semester to write my way around all the other arguments about Locke that have already been made, I managed only to rehash this one.

This discovery at first only re-animated the sense of the hopeless futility of grad school that I entertain for at least two hours each day. But as I skimmed the rest of the book, I discovered that it begins with a rather extensive diatribe against Hannah Arendt, who is taken to be the philosophical muse (and simultaneous journalistic hack--a fascinating double life) of the republican synthesis in historiography that has obscured the true Lockean-ness of the American founding. However, somehow, despite being wrong about the entire history of political thought (and, again, a hack), Arendt managed to guide me to the exact same reading of Locke at which Pangle arrived. How odd.

I promised a few months ago to reply to Withywindle's request for a defense of Arendt as the most important and penetrating thinker of political thoughts in the 20th century (not Withywindle's words, obvi), and while I still can't produce one without delving into extremely boring stories about how I spent my summer vacation five years ago, I will try to make a start on it by defending her against this particular (now two-decade old) attack, whose components I take to be the following:

1) As Heidegger's student, Arendt is merely an unwitting popularizer and sugar-coater of his evil arguments.
2) Arendt celebrates a dangerous conception of action without limits--she offers no means by which to judge the virtue or morality of any action, nor does she suggest such judgment is even necessary.
3) Arendt misunderstands or willfully misrepresents ancient political philosophy.

The Heidegger line is, I think, the most superficial, though the most common criticism. First, it is prudent to tread carefully when leveling accusations of intellectual pollution by personal association, lest such accusations be leveled against one's own preferred mid-century German philosophers one day. Second, this accusation is contradictory. Arendt is taken at once to be smart enough to comprehend the implications of Heidegger's thought, but too stupid or naive to realize his influence on her own. She is feckless enough to "self-consciously obscure" the truth about the ruthlessness of the Greek polis, but too "humane" to endorse the full consequences of Heidegger's political thought. Either that, or she fully intended to cloak her evil Heideggerianism in a false liberalism and was disingenuous in her denunciations of the left's and the right's totalitarianisms, which is extremely hard to believe given the animating power of these denunciations in her work. Third, this kind of accusation ultimately only begs the question if the accuser doesn't go on to refute Heidegger himself, which is a somewhat larger project than Pangle apparently intended to take on.

The second accusation is true but limited. Unless Will has discovered something in her writing on judgment, I'm not sure that Arendt offers any standards by which to judge the morality of action. But, her insight is not into the actor's will or intention, but the inability of that will or intention to influence the direction his action takes. She does not set out to answer the question, "What is good to do?" but rather, "What is doing in politics?" Take, for example (and one Arendt does not use), the speech-act of greatest world-historical importance in the Western tradition*--Luther's reply to Charles V at Worms. Was "Ich kann nicht anders" the right thing to say--was it virtuous, prudent, or true? This is not a trivial question, and Arendt has no answer to it. However, Arendt would be interested in what Luther's reply did--shatter the Church, plunge Europe into a century of religious war, foster the rise of liberal individualism, and on and on through all the interpretations of the Reformation. Of course, Luther didn't intend most of that or do any of it himself. Even his followers can't be blamed for it all. But that is the nature of action--what Arendt calls "the subterranean stream" of past words and events that comes to the surface in present political life. And this phenomenon--the indeterminacy of the effects and legacy of action in politics--is real whether or not the original action is good or bad.

Pangle says that excluding considerations of morality or of a permanent human nature constitutes nothing less than an effort to overthrow the Western philosophical tradition (which, to be fair, Arendt thought was already over), but I'm not sure a phenomenological account of action would necessarily preclude an ethical account even if it doesn't include one. Moreover, it's impossible to think after reading The Origins of Totalitarianism--a long chronicle of ill-used action and thought that culminates in the end of politics--that Arendt is either unaware of or pleased by the destructiveness of this indeterminacy. But attention to the ethical dimension of action, the "What should I do?", is insufficient to deal with the ensuing misappropriations of even the most virtuous action. How did we get to totalitarianism? It wasn't through four hundred years of evil intention calculated by Machiavelli to result in the Third Reich. Finally, Arendt did not want, as the common allegation runs, to return to the pre-Socratic Greek polis. (Also, only maybe one of the remaining two readers of this post at this point will care about this point, but the historicism that results in attention to a "human condition" rather than human nature is not all that different from the historicism that argues that the progressivism of science has made impossible at present an "account of the whole" that was the original project of philosophy.)

Finally, her reading of the ancients. This is much too big a question to address here, in large part because Pangle points to no specific error of hers except a general mis-characterization of "classical republicanism" as less ruthless and imperialistic than it really was. But this only brings us back to the point that Arendt did not want to return to the politics of the polis, so we will have to leave it there for now.

*Readers attuned to my esoteric teaching in this post will notice which important event I have chosen not to call the speech-act of greatest world-historical significance in the West.

UPDATE: In case anyone was so enthralled by this post that he wants to read 40 more pages on the problem of judgment in Arendt, here they are.