Friday, September 27, 2013

ever ancient ever new

I've officially been reading C. S. Lewis for ten years now; not continuously, of course, but probably more than any other single author. Whenever I see a picture (and environs) of this man from whom I have probably learned more than from any other, I'm filled with longing.  I long for the days when I first read him, when I first discovered this fresh brilliance, this teacher who relieved all my anxieties, this boon companion.  I see in him everything that I should truly long to be in this life, as a man and as an intellect, if only it were my destiny.  I am also filled with longing for my youth, for those few years in my adolescence when I was closer to God than I had ever been before, or have ever been since.

I don't suppose it's coincidental that Lewis himself was The Doctor of Sehnsucht.  It's a subject that comes up often in his writing; and his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, is all about it, that which had haunted him his entire life.

I'm quite excited that this Autumn, Cambridge (Canto Series) is re-printing Lewis's greatest literary study:  The Allegory of Love:  A Study in Medieval Tradition.  Also:  Image and Imagination:  Essays and Reviews (also Canto), a collection of never previously published works. Hooah!

Thursday, September 26, 2013


However slowly, I've been reading The Maltese Falcon again, and I just finished the Flitcraft Parable.  I'm reminded that Flitcraft's disappearance was not the principal, or not the only, reason that I identified with him, as a personal fantasy.  The very non-fantastical part I identified with was the heart of the story:  a beam falling from several stories hit the sidewalk just next to him on his way to lunch.  He felt like somebody "took the lid off life and let him look at the works."  Furthermore, the part of tale that Spade "always liked":  "He adjusted himself to beams falling.  And then no more of them fell.  Then adjusted himself to them not falling."  It is this brush with death, the awareness of one's own mortality, that resonates with me.  One takes life for granted until something that can kill you reminds you that you can die at any moment, and you "adjust" yourself to this awareness.  But the reminders aren't perpetual, so you go back to your default perspective and forget your mortality.  I think I've always found Hammett a soulmate because he was tubercular; that is, he lived with an illness.  Indeed, the reason he began writing as a career was because, around the age of 30, he knew writing was something he always wanted to do and he didn't expect to live much longer, certainly not well into his 50's as he did.  I certainly feel reckless in that I do not often enough take heed of Hammett's lesson.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Mathematical Approach

Below are the very first paragraphs of Robert Sokolowski's Introduction to Phenomenology.  What follows is, I believe, a critical distinction, and should probably explain why I personally take a non-academic approach to philosophy. Academic philosophy is inveterately "scholarly"; it seems to take the approach of a legal proceeding 90% of the time (actually, all the humanities seem to proceed this way, and certainly the so-called "human sciences").

"[A professor of mathematics and philosophy, Gian-Carlo] Rota had often drawn attention to a difference between mathematicians and philosophers. Mathematicians, he said, tend to absorb the writings of their predecessors directly into their own work. They do not comment on the writings of earlier mathematicians, even if they have been very much influenced by them. They simply make use of the material that they find in the authors they read. When advances are made in mathematics, later thinkers condense the findings and move on. Few mathematicians study works from past centuries; compared with contemporary mathematics, such older writings seem to them almost like the work of children.

"In philosophy, by contrast, classical works often become enshrined as objects of exegesis rather than resources to be exploited. Philosophers, Rota observed, tend not to ask, 'Where do we go from here?' Instead, they inform us about the doctrines of major thinkers. They are prone to comment on earlier works rather than paraphrase them. Rota acknowledged the value of commentaries but thought that philosophers ought to do more. Besides offering exposition, they should abridge earlier writings and directly address issues, speaking in their own voice and incorporating into their own work what their predecessors have done. They should extract as well as annotate."

A is A, and Truth is Truth; thus just as all mathematical truths are public, available to all, so should all philosophical truths be. The big difference, of course, and the place where philosophers get stuck, is that truth is "located" in propositions, and propositions are composed of words. And all the disputes among philosophers derive from disagreements over the meanings of words. Math doesn't have this problem because numbers are invariable; every number is identical to itself. Academic philosophy is, as I said, inveterately "scholarly" because the academician has tons of ground to cover about the philosopher(s) they're following before they can make their own case; they have to establish that, say, Aristotle in fact "meant" X rather than Y, before they can go on and proceed to "move forward." Though I am by no means fond of Logical Positivism, I can sympathize a great deal with the idea that in order for philosophy to proceed, the question of "various meanings" has to be excluded, that one needs the clarity in logical terms that one has in numerical terms. Ultimately, since words/terms are based on concepts which are in turn based on fact/reality, they do have a manifold of meanings, because reality is, as C. S. Lewis once put it, knobbly and complicated. Husserl's a priori of every object having a subject-relative pole for each subject (i.e., each person) makes matters even more complex because the activity of consciousness is even more complex than the object one is conscious-of. I think a metaphysical realism is the only way to achieve the kind of "progress" that Rota spoke of. The question of what something "means" will go on infinitely if it doesn't eventually reach an absolute ground of being-in-itself; our meanings, in other words, have to be based on beings, and thus we must strive to reach a meaning which is objective. If there can be no agreement as to meaning, no "progress" can ever be made; and if agreements of meaning are not founded on real objects, they are, as it were, meaningless. This, I take it, is the objection of Postmodernism, viz. that since we can't access things-in-themselves, we can never achieve objective truth and thus no progress of any kind will be possible. This is more or less the contrary to the Logical Positivist. The latter excludes meaning from the outset, and the Postmodernist says the meanings are infinite. What they both have in common is that they each think objective meanings are impossible. But each position is untenable because each of them rely on statements of their case which are formulated in terms that have meanings which they take to be communicable, and to achieve communication requires both parties appealing to standards which they both agree upon.  If meanings are arbitrary or factitious, they should never have been able to tell one another why or how they disapprove of one another.  Logical and metaphysical realism -- i.e., truth is found in propositions consisting of terms founded on concepts which are teleologically oriented to objective entities -- is the aurea mediocritas of the deficiency of Positivism and the excess of Relativism, and the only way to proceed philosophically.

Monday, September 16, 2013

a lost article

Recently I posted here a bit of praise for Robert Sokolowski's Introduction to Phenomenology, which I'd been re-reading for the first time in a few years.  It was a good little piece, but unfortunately I deleted it.  I deleted it because, for a few hours, I was feeling ambivalent toward phenomenology and thought "to hell with it."  But then I got back to the book and wished I hadn't deleted it.

The core of this reflection was that I took this book to be the definitive statement on phenomenology.  Regardless of Husserl and his followers, and regardless of the other works Sokolowski has written, I find the Introduction to be a magnum opus, and the only "version" of phenomenology that I find acceptable.  I also made a point concerning the pun on the terms "introduction" and "phenomenology."  I said that phenomenology is a state of mind:  the so-called phenomenological attitude is phenomenology per se.  And every time one engages the phenomenological "reduction," one engages in an introduction to -- a "leading-in" to -- phenomenology.  This is fitting, I think, because phenomenology is largely -- as Merleau-Ponty put it -- re-learning to look at the world.  The philosophical epoché always consists in starting from scratch, a return to the things themselves, a statement with Socrates that "all I know is that I do not know."  I spoke of the Introduction in this way because I thought such a title might be misleading to an outsider, who might consider this book the first in a long line of books on phenomenology.  But it is a unique gem, which stands alone -- like Chesterton's Orthodoxy or Pieper's Leisure -- as something to be read again and again.  Just as St. Thomas called the Summa Theologiae "for beginners", even though it is considered the treatise on theology, so do I consider Sokolowski's book a Summa Phenomenologiae -- it is, for me, the statement and treatise on phenomenology.  It's holism, applicability to life and to thought, is unparalleled (so far as my own researches have led me to conclude).

Perhaps someday I will be able to restate entire this reflection which I have stupidly deleted...

Friday, September 6, 2013

"to delight in the praise for its own sake..."

For some reason I've been getting a lot of kind, flattering, humbling feedback from fellow students in the course I'm taking on the Holy Trinity.  I think that this total stranger's response represents one of the few moments in my life I've felt understood.

[my original post]
Agere sequitur esse. This famous scholastic dictum encapsulates the point at issue in "I, Q'.s 4-6" [of St. Thomas's Summa Theologiae]. What a thing does (agere) is a "second act" which follows upon what a thing is (esse), it's "first act." Since God is ipsum esse, being simply, everything He does is one with what, or that, He Is. Whatever good a person -- or any created substance -- achieves, however, is resultant upon its act of being, and can fall short of goodness or perfection. Formality and Goodness, while separated in rational analysis, are in Nature, as in God, not separated -- are, in fact, synonymous. Ideally, every thing, by being what it is (form), achieves its perfection (goal). God -- Existence per se  -- is fully actual, and existing beings participate in His primordial existing, but analogously, namely by the limitation of individual essence, which is separated out by matter. Humanity in particular -- because it is Fallen and possessing free will -- falls short of its own perfection, lacks full participation in the human essence (human "being"), what humanity is created to be (but that leads to another issue). And even in Nature, which is composed of creatures subject to generation and corruption, we find beings which fall short of their essence, especially in the phenomenon of death or in the process of decay. Since in God there is no distinction between His attributes and His existence -- and since we are certain of His existence by the proofs -- we can equally be certain of His goodness and His perfection.

[stranger's reply]
 Trevor I heard your voice in my head as I read. We were in a stone church classroom, candles lighting up the stone walls with years of soot rising up the walls. The fire was cracking but not irritatingly, and one would notice the graphics on the high walls for ancient councils in which the archbishop was called to attend. You were reading from a stool, one leg over the other, and holding a pipe in one hand. In the other was a book, a brief and concise analysis of the Summa to which you narrated quite well. Your fingers broke the spine of the book and simultaneously help open the pages flat, neat and open enough to read line to line, edge to edge.