Thursday, December 25, 2014

goodbye as morality

Philosophers have a tendency that we get a handle on the world through quantification – if we can number it, it exists. All, every, each, some, and none ride mankind.  
Adam has a different idea. For each word, each thing, he has a goodbye. He has an essentially valedictory theory of reference: the referent is something you can farewell. You can say goodbye to green lights, blue buses, iceskaters, iceskating, basketball, sky, moon, doggie, pumpkin pants, and everything in between.
I’m not quite sure of the deeper meaning here. There are certain objects, for instance, like the trees near the school, which, even in approaching, require a goodbye: goodbye trees. Green, as in green light, is also only goodbyeable. On the other hand, pumpkin pants only receive the valedictory benediction when they are taken off. They fit properly in the sequence of possession and mourning that pretty much makes up our lives. Hello, on the other hand, is something that comes less spontaneously. We have to encourage Adam to say hello. I have encouraged him to say hiya, as in hiya guys, but this is something that I have to pull out of him too.
This makes the world a bit asymmetrical; however, it must be said, though goodbye is said softly and with feeling, it isn’t really sad. Especially for those objects that are only goodbye-able. Rather, there is something like, dare I say it, respect in the goodbye.

It is true, too, that goodbye is ultimately one of the most respectful things one can say to a tree one is passing. There’s a whole morality in goodbye. If Kant had only written the Critique of Practical Reason when he was two years old, I think it would have been a, a much shorter work, and b., a much more convincing one vis a vis the treatment of objects, which is just another way of saying, the moral way to be in the world. 

Strauss II: esotericism and carnival

Leo Strauss can be credited as a definite influence in the advance of philological and rhetorical sensitivity towards philosophical texts within an academic discipline, philosophy, that, in America at least, has all too often rewarded philological and rhetorical insensitivity, which is another way of saying systematic wiseassness.
In particular, Strauss was sensitive to the citational situation set up, so often, in major philosophical texts. A passage in, say, the Preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit can be read exoterically by trying to connect its themes and arguments without ever putting it in relation to the complex figurations of knowledge that are presented in the main text – but from the point of view of the main text, the preface must itself be in there – it exists as text as a sort of quasi-indirect discourse, a citation within the dynamic creating the figures of reason. The sensitivity to what I am calling the citational moment motivates the notion of the esoteric side. We cannot directly say that in a text, the author is “just saying” .
But Strauss’s recovery of rhetoric is, unfortunately, bent to a larger set of principles that are generalized ahistorically and that simply leap over the moment in which they are, well, argued for. Here, esotericism becomes less a method than an ideology. This is Strauss’s argument about what the ancient philosophers were doing, and the persecution they feared:
“ They believed that the gulf separating "the wise" and "the vulgar" was a basic fact of human nature which could not be influenced by any progress of popular education: philosophy, or science, was essentially a privilege of "the few:' They were convinced that
philosophy as such was suspect to, and hated by, the majority of men.1G Even if they had had nothing to fear from any particular political quarter, those who started from that assumption would have been driven to the conclusion that public communication
of the philosophic or scientific truth was impossible or undesirable, not only for the time being but for all times. They must conceal their opinions from all but philosophers, either by limiting themselves to oral instruction of a carefully selected group…”
I want to get back to “philosophy as such”, since it isn’t clear here, or anywhere in Strauss, just what exactly separates philosophy as such from other forms of reflection. But taking this passage as a whole, it is hard not to goggle at the sheer implausibility of it. The supposed creed of the philosophers is that there is a hierarchy in nature that separates the low from the high? And, in the tyrannic, militaristic, slaveholding societies that sprang up all around the eastern meditteranean, this was a esoteric secret? It is like being told that philosophers in the Confederate states had to hide the fact that they thought blacks inferior. On the contrary, persecution, historically, was directed at those ‘non’-philosophers who urged the opposite: that the high did not have any right, in nature, to rule over the low. That man is the measure of things – as Protagoras would have it.
The problem here is, I think, that Strauss takes the doctrines that he attributes to philosophers as definitional of philosophers. Which is why conflicting textual evidence is no problem for him:
An exoteric book contains then two teachings: a popular
teaching of an edifying character, which is in the foreground;
and a philosophic teaching concerning the most important subject,
which is indicated only between the lines. This is not to
deny that some great writers might have stated certain important
truths quite openly by using as mouthpiece some disreputable
character: they would thus show how much they disapproved
of pronouncing the truths in question. There would then be
good reason for our finding in the greatest literature of the past
so many interesting devils, madmen, beggars, sophists, drunkards,
epicureans and buffoons. Those to whom such books are
truly addressed are, however, neither the unphilosophic majority
nor the perfect philosopher as such, but the young men who
might become philosophers: the potential philosophers are to
be led step by step from the popular views which are indispensable
for all practical and political purposes to the truth which is
merely and purely theoretical, guided by certain obtrusively enigmatic features in the presentation of the popular teachingobscurity
of the plan, contradictions, pseudonyms, inexact repetitions
of earlier statements, strange expressions, etc. Such fea- .
tures do not disturb the slumber of those who cannot see the
wood for the trees…
Strauss’s refusal to see, himself, the trees for the woody he has for the “intelligent young gentlemen” is what strikes me in this passage. I would argue that taking philosophy as such in too narrow and cultic a sense has put Strauss in a corner – when the texts in question seem citationally to undermine the high-low distinction that is so important to his definition of philosophy, he in essence ceases to take their rhetoric seriously. A more plausible theory of those range of abject and sublime figures would appeal to the by now very compendious anthropology of what Bakhtin called the carnivalesque. But this is an appeal that Strauss can’t contenance, because it goes outside of the discipline of philosophy to talk about philosophy. This violates the principle that the low don’t really think “philosophically” and resent it when others do so.
In essence, Strauss is sacrificing everything to preserve the romantic image of those young intelligent gentlemen. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

a note on strauss and esotericism 1

A note on strauss 1
The key Leo Strauss’s scholarly work is based on his recovery of esotericism, which he fully developed in the late 1930s, and which he took to be the key to understanding the ancients as well as understanding how the ancients were misunderstood by the moderns – how in fact modernity defines itself through that misunderstanding. Among the deepest pre-modern writers stretching back to the ancients, all writing had two sides: one is a surface of exoteric writing, in which meaning, theme and style is subordinate to the norms of the masses, while the other, deeper side esoteric, presenting truths in a suitably obscure manner that are not meant for the vulgar. In the golden liberal era of the 19th century (about which Strauss, like Hayek, had the most romantic notions), the urgency of the threat of persecution vanished, and made it harder for researchers to understand this two faced structure in older texts.
Although Straussians like to paint Strauss as an intellectual hero struggling against the positivism and behaviorism of the time, in actuality, esotericism was not so far out of line with many of the intellectual currents of the post war era. In literary criticism, for instance, Northrop Frye was not alone in turning to medieval rhetoric to create an ontology of reading within which there was a hierarchy of levels, from the literal to the anagogic. Psychoanalysis had spread a general cultural feeling for codes in everyday behavior, seeing surface and ostensive behaviors as the results of complicated and unconscious developments, in which, most grandly, thanatos wrestled with eros, and most trivially, Oedipus killed his father and slept with his mother. This kind of psychology was bundled up with the whole set of “strategic” sciences, from game theory to anthropology, which provided the paradigm for defense policy wonks in the fifties.
It was in the early forties that Strauss gave the lecture which became the first chapter of Persecutiona and the Art of Writing. The book begins with a plea for understanding the idea of “writing between the lines.” To make this plausible to a contemporary American audience, he imagines the following scenario:
“We can easily imagine that a historian living in a totalitarian country, a generally respected and unsuspected member of the only party in existence, might be led by his investigations to doubt the soundness of the government-sponsored interpretation of the history of religion. Nobody would prevent him from publishing a passionate attack on what he would call the liberal view. He would of course have to state
the liberal view before attacking it; he would make that statement
in the quiet, unspectacular and somewhat boring manner which would seem to be but natural; he would use many technical terms, give many'quotations and attach undue importance to insignificant details; he would seem to forget the holy war of
mankind in the petty squabbles of pedants. Only when he reached the core of the argument would he write three or four sentences in that terse and lively style which is apt to arrest the attention of young men who love to think. That central passage would state the case of the adversaries more clearly, compellingly and mercilessly than it had ever been stated in the heyday of liberalism, for he would silently drop all the foolish excrescences of the liberal creed which were allowed to grow up during the time when liberalism had succeeded and therefore was approaching dormancy. His reasonable young reader would for the first time catch a glimpse of the forbidden fruit. The attack, the bulk of the work, would consist of virulent expansions of the worst virulent utterances in the holy book or books of the ruling party. The intelligent young man who, being young, had until then been somehow attracted by those• immoderate utterances,
would now be merely disgusted and, after having tasted the forbidden fruit, even bored by them. Reading the book for the second and third time, he would detect in the very arrangement of the quotations from the authoritative books significant additions
to those few terse statements which occur in the center of the rather short first part.”
Although I’d like to separate out and analyze three moments in this scenario, it is necessary to pause for a moment and observe its type. Philosopher’s often pretend that their examples come out of a moment of chair bound thought, but in fact they are not immune to the types and tones current in the world of stories. What is this one, after all, but a sort of thriller in the high, between the war style of the Tory adventurer? The threat to the British empire is, in writers like John Buchan, warded off by intelligent ‘gentlemen’ – the cool type who do not make too much heavy weather out of the evilness of the villains they face, but know it is evil nonetheless, and that everything depends on getting the message through the screens they throw up. Headquarters must know the name of the spy, or they must change the placement of the troops – the show must be saved. It is in moments like these that one hears the dogwhistle of the cultist, where the sense is given that one is not simply decoding a way of writing from the past, but that one is in the center of an imperial thriller. Even sensible students of Strauss are liable to go off the tracks when this theme is near. Stanley Rosen, who seems have his feet on the ground as far as applying Strauss’s hermeneutic principles to philosophical texts, compared Strauss, in one essay, to Churchill. Churchill? He was making a political point that Strauss, like Churchill, was really a defender of “western style liberalism.” Not, mind you, Roosevelt, who was president of the country in which Strauss actually resided in World War II. Rosen even feels entitled to make a jab, here, at Nietzsche, whose image of a hero was more “Attila the Hun.” Of course, this is absurd – Nietzsche admired Napoleon, not Atilla the Hun. Even so, Rosen doesn’t even pause to ponder who ordered the massacre of more lives, and decimated more cities, in the “West”: Attila the Hun or Churchill?
Such, then, is the tone and style of Strauss’s scenario. One notices that it is a scenario about delivering a message. The message is one of the components of the esoteric writing scene. The threat of persecution is the context in which the message is encrypted in a larger, more harmless text. The transmitter, in this case, is a historian, and is more commonly a thinker. And the receiver of the message? Intelligent young men. The intelligent young men, or gentlemen, are the boyscouts of Strauss’s philosophical world. Always male, always from the class of “gentlemen”

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

    When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a...