A Lost Library


Mt. Chocorua, Sanford Robinson Gifford via Wikimedia Commons

American Philosophy: A Love Story had an utterly irresistible and all too hard-to-live-up-to premise.  It was this: John Kaag was a struggling philosophy postdoc when by pure chance he wandered onto the rural estate of a long dead Harvard don and into his nearly untouched library of rare books.  William Ernest Hocking, who died in 1966, would have known William James and Robert Frost, and studied under Josiah Royce and Edmund Husserl.  The library he built in the White Mountains of New Hampshire contained a vast trove of American philosophical and religious work as well as first editions of monuments going back to Kant, Hobbes, and Spinoza.  This is the stuff of dreams.  Although Kaag faced no rude awakening, and was instead invited to stay, camp, catalogue, and find a home for the collection, I’m afraid the rest of the book is somewhat paled in comparison.

Kaag chose to join the story of the library with two others.  One is Kaag’s own emotional rebuilding after divorcing his first wife.  It’s not for nothing that he was most drawn to the theme in American philosophy of what makes life worth living.   It makes me feel awfully hard hearted but this is the aspect of the book that works least well, for me anyhow.  I’m sure it’s a matter of perspective.  And now it occurs to me that it’s also no coincidence that Kaag names the sections of his book Hell, Purgatory, and Redemption after Dante’s Divine Comedy, a choice I was happy to just pass over, as it’s my least favorite epic.  (It’s enough of a stretch to imagine leaving Limbo when Homer, Socrates, the Saladin, et al. are hanging out there; I don’t remember if Dante mentions a library.)  Passages of a desperate, confessional bent seemed too abrupt and contrast weirdly with the gently enthusiastic tone of the history of philosophy, the other major theme.

Kaag laments somewhat the Americans’ secondary status viz the European greats; I don’t know if there’s really any helping it.  The philosophy is interesting enough, I suppose, and emphasizes a sort of proto existentialist angle: What becomes of human meaning and freedom after Darwin and physics?  The thread seems to drop, but I got the idea that some of the contacts between Hocking and his students and later French existentialists, testified to in Hocking’s letters, formed a part of Kaag’s actual research.   I don’t remember anything similar in the small part of William James’ Psychology that I read for school.  I found the biography more memorable.  Hocking was a member of the carpenters’ union in San Francisco during the rebuilding, working with redwood lumber so fresh “the sap would jump out if we hit them with a hammer”.  He would later enlist his philosopher friends as masons for his own library.


Is the Government a Machine?

I’ve had a running argument with a coworker on the subject of qualifications.  We both are or were Bernie supporters (it is a long time until November), but he likes to point out that Hillary Clinton is one of the most qualified candidates in recent memory, and I always take issue with that.  Then the other day the great Louis C. K. weighed in with a bit in which he compared Hillary to a qualified airline pilot, Bernie to the guy who wants the plane to stop at every house, and Trump, I guess, to the random asshole who wants to grab the controls and do barrel rolls.  I’m honestly interested if anyone wants to help me with my problem understanding qualifications.

First of all, when someone says that Hillary’s qualifications are the best, I have a hard time seeing how that’s not the same thing as an endorsement.  Yet my friend maintains that it is not the same thing, and that I should recognize her qualifications despite supporting the other candidate.  We’ve argued round and round about how years of experience in the Senate should be weighed against executive branch experience in the Department of State and in the White House.  It doesn’t help that I don’t actually know much about what the Secretary of State does.  In any case, it seems to me like the notion of qualifications is, in this case, so subjective that it makes as much sense to choose a president based on ideas as on years spent in various branches of government.  It makes sense to choose someone with a DDS to work on your teeth.  The notion of particular qualifications in politicians makes less sense to me.

Louis C. K.’s bit included a phrase that, I think, clarifies some of what I am concerned with.  He said that the government is a “dangerous mechanism”.  A plane, no doubt, is a dangerous mechanism.  But is our government a mechanism?  A plane is something that takes off and goes to a certain place.  Is that what our government does?  The government is powerful; the government is dangerous.  Where is it going?  Others (Calvin Coolidge?) have compared the government to a business. Perhaps what the government does is too important, too much its own thing, to compare in such a cavalier way with a plane or a grocery store. 

Unfortunately, I have to use analogies to back this up.  The notion of a government as an airplane, or a ship, to use an example that surely goes back at least to Plato, reminds me powerfully of arguments over the mind and the brain.  Is the mind like a clock, a piece of biological mechanism, evolved in a clearly material way, and no different from the dead matter surrounding it?  From certain directions this notion seems incontrovertible, and yet we always seem to lose something when we stop talking about souls and ideas.  Perhaps a countervailing and equally distorting tendency exists in descriptions of the world in terms of mere information.

I want to resist the tendency, which seems to me inherent in the notion of qualifications, to deciding political matters in a reductive, mechanistic way.  This reductiveness could manifest itself in checking boxes like “Department of State, worked in”, or in drawing lines that say “it’s over, time to support x candidate”, or in drawing conclusions like “taxes up, bad”.  What suggests itself to me is a Tocquevillian vision of American greatness resting upon the combined efforts of millions of mediocre, unqualified citizens participating equally in the business of running the country.  Yet how are millions of engaged citizens different from a bureaucracy?  This post is really not about who to vote for, but about how we decide, and about what analogies help us make our decisions.  I want to know what people think about this highly appealing and funny idea of the nation as a machine.

F*ing Trolleyology


(I quite like real trolleys, though.)

A while ago the New York Review ran an article on trolleyology.  I was a little disappointed.  Trolleyology drives me crazy, which tells me that I take myself too seriously, but there it is.

What is trolleyology?  It’s a game played by philosophers of ethics.  Suppose you saw five people tied to a track with a runaway trolley headed for them.  Then suppose there was a switch you could throw to direct the trolley onto a siding, but there was a sixth person tied up on that siding.  Would you do it?  What if there was a fat man standing by who would derail the trolley if you pushed him under its wheels?  The situations are ludicrous but writers are quick to point out applications to issues like abortion; It surprises me that I don’t recall any mention of civilian deaths in war.

Philosophers of a psychological bent apparently get a kick out of seeing the contradictory ways that people respond to these sorts of questions posed in different ways and orders.  Those are the kinds of picky arguments I resent being badgered with, and in my imaginary grapplings with them, I can never resist the temptation to answer “none of the above”.  If I ever see five people tied up on the train tracks, I won’t lose a moment finding the psycho who is responsible, and I’ll be looking for the moral philosophers first.

Seriously, I am forced to concede that we probably can learn something from these games.  I don’t necessarily concede that it’s worthwhile.  It’s easy to get mired in details when the truth may lie in an entirely different direction.   Speaking of works that go in a different direction I’ve been really meaning to get around to reading Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke.  It’s worth a try.

Photo is by Adam E. Moreira, via Wikimedia Commons, CC Attribution Share Alike.

The Most Interesting Word in the World

Not just according to my old tutor, Eva Brann, but according to the thing itself, the most interesting word in Western philosophy is logos.  I’ve just read Brann’s book The Logos of Heraclitus: The First Philosopher of the West on its Most Interesting Term.  The Ancient Greek “pre Socratic” philosopher Heraclitus may be best known for saying that you can’t set foot in the same river twice.  Among other things, Brann makes the case that to remember him for this doctrine that “everything flows” is to misunderstand him.

I feel I should make the probably unhelpful confession that I am not quite on board with metaphysics.  That is, I feel a restlessness come over me when I am faced with a statement like “all is one”, or an argument in favor of accepting paradox.  Great, you might say, why should I hear your thoughts on this book when you admit you’re prejudiced against it?  Well, this isn’t a deliberate position of mine, but a vague state of mind that troubled me as I read.  I think it’s to Brann’s credit that no sooner had I begun to fret over this than I was drawn in by some striking arguments.

What if, for example, the usual translation of hen panta, all is one, misses the mark somewhat?  Brann’s contention, well within the realm of grammatical possibility, is that Heraclitus intended something more like “one: everything”, the colon being the same notation used to denote mathematical ratios, or in Greek, logoi.  I find it much more plausible that Heraclitus is drawing our attention to the relationship, whatever it may be, between one and many, than that he is simply identifying them.  Brann draws our attention to two examples of relations, ratios, or logoi: that which obtains between numbers, and that which makes a poetic metaphor.  They seem to be of two different sorts, but where is the boundary?  Is it always easy to say where that boundary lies in science, or rhetoric, or law?  Is one sort more fundamental to our thinking?

There’s a lot to the book I haven’t said much about.  Does Heraclitus somehow think the world is made of fire?  Why is War king of all?  I could easily stand to read it again, and follow up with the rest of the pre Socratics, Plato, Euclid, maybe even Aristotle.  It’s worth thinking about.

One last thought: Is logos really an English word?  Should it be?  And how?

Diogenes Laertius, Part II

All the sources I’ve looked at call Lives of Eminent Philosophers a work of great value but do not go into specifics.  The Oxford Companion to Philosophy complains that Diogenes has no discernible philosophy; less charitable, but not unreasonable commenters do not deign to call him an author at all.  It’s not easy to prove that Diogenes is worth reading.

Perhaps the title of another lost work from Diogenes’ endless list provides a clue: Against Wisdom, by Aenesidemus, the follower of Pyrrho.  The Pyrrhonians took skepticism quite far, insisting they determined nothing, and did not even determine that they determined nothing.  Diogenes rightly doubts whether Pyrrho really was as skeptical in everyday life, of carts, deep holes, dogs, and the like, as he was in philosophy.  To opponents who claimed that he could not live without making some affirmations, he answered that custom was sufficient and did not imply a judgment.  From Pyrrho’s standpoint, anyone who went further was a dogmatist.

The question of how far we should venture in setting down beliefs does not concern only Pyrrho and the skeptics.  Diogenes writes what is still true today, that “There is great division of opinion between those who affirm and those who deny that Plato was a dogmatist.”  He doesn’t even have to comment on the divisions that arose among the successors of Socrates; the lives speak for themselves: Antisthenes the Cynic and the hedonist Aristippus clearly took things in different directions than Plato.  Controversy between dogmatists and skeptics shows that the nature of a philosophical work is itself a question for philosophy.  Should it propound theory or attack it, or should it only report impressions?  It also showed how Diogenes was faced with a wider range of philosophical positions than I am accustomed to bear in mind.  Therefore I am more intrigued by his equanimity than I am disappointed in his lack of a position.

I would like to think that one can explain some of the odd features of the Lives on the basis of this equanimity, rather than on sheer muddled credulity.  Diogenes sees fit to include many things not to the credit of his eminent subjects.  He describes Menedemus as a vain slacker but a particularly good friend.  This story concerning Arcesilaus I found rather touching:

“He also attended the lectures of the geometer Hipponicus, at whom he pointed a jest as one who was in all besides a listless, yawning sluggard but yet proficient in his subject.  ‘Geometry,’ he said, ‘must have flown into his mouth while it was agape.’ When this man’s mind gave way, Arcesilaus took him to his house and nursed him until he was completely restored.”

Diogenes’ anecdotes of the most various philosophers show them at their most humane, from Pyrrho’s dusting furniture in the house he shared with his sister to the flat contention that all of the detractors of Epicurus must be ignorant of how much people liked the man.  This is an aspect of the philosophic life that is easy to lose sight of in an era where even the surviving names are few.  Surely to take Diogenes to task for lack of a position is to lose sight of the idea that philosophy might make us not just wiser, but better.

Where Do Books Go?

Of course I worry that I am not reading all the books that need to be read, but should I have to worry at the same time that there are not enough books?  Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers (I’ve been reading the Loeb, translated by R. D. Hicks) has dozens of pages listing the works of philosophers from Aristotle to Zeno of Citium, many or all of which are lost.  This Diogenes lived in the third century and, unlike the Diogenes who lived in a tub and helped found cynicism, is not known for being particularly original or bright.  He is, however, one of the few sources on ancient philosophers who were not Plato or Aristotle.  Some interesting lost titles given are Aristotle’s Laws of the Mess Table and A Reply to the Pythagoreans, Theophrastus’ On Riot, Strato’s On Enthusiasm, Demetrius’ On the Ten Years of His Own Supremacy and Of the Beam in the Sky, the Cynic’s Jackdaw and On Death.  I suppose it was from a case like Sophocles, who I learned quite a while ago had written not just seven plays, but over a hundred, that I got the idea that lost books are an occasion for mourning and vain speculation.  There’s no way of summarizing the effect of Diogenes’ lists and their blend of the mundane, the overworked, the strange.  On Fatigues, On Motion, On Precious Stones, On Pestilences, On Fainting… they just go on and on.  Suddenly I’m having a much easier time resigning myself to the idea, not only that I’ll never read these books, but that I’ll never read most books.  It’s not that I rest easy in the assumption that what survives, our Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle, our Herodotus and Thucydides, our three tragedians, is the best there was.  However, there is perspective to be had in the realization that all of the authors writing today, though they take themselves ever so seriously, in philosophy or whatever else, would be lucky to find themselves as well off as humble Diogenes after a thousand years or so.  Hopefully in the next post I can prove that Diogenes is one of those authors worth reading.