Archive for August, 2009

The other day, in an online discussion, I posted a quote from W.H. Auden. According to some completely unverified website, Auden once said or wrote that “a real book is not one that we read, but one that reads us.”  My original impression of the quote was that it conveyed the idea that in some way we get out of the book what we bring into it, but this obviously depends on what kind of book we are talking about. A few people objected to this quote immediately, arguing that Auden was saying no more than that there are books that he really likes, and that the same sentence would be as vague and nonsensical if other words were inserted instead of book.

Upon some reflection, I think that the objectors are correct to point out that Auden is just being too vague. I probably read too far into it at the beginning, based on some other stuff I’m reading/thinking about lately, and for this reason it’s always good to have some fresh eyes. However, I think the initial reason that I argued back instead of rethinking Auden’s quote was that I perceived them as trying to assert some kind of logical positivist argument that would render Auden’s statement meaningless. I decided not to go down that road, and instead argued for what I thought was a more charitable reading. And, frankly, I doubt that these objectors were ascribing to that very narrow discourse (although, no doubt, it’s possible that they were influenced by positivism in other ways).

I was reading through Vattimo’s pseudo-intellectual memoir Belief today, and Vattimo struck me as presenting a pretty well-reasoned defense of slightly imprecise language in arguments that is nonetheless rigorous. I think that whether you accept Vattimo’s argument will depend on your position towards metaphysics; clearly Vattimo is arguing the way he is because he attempts at post-metaphysical philosophy. These technical quibbles notwithstanding, I think Vattimo is on to something here, especially in the context of semi-academic blogging.

I am not saying that one should accept any statement no matter how vague and contradictory it may be. I am trying to propose arguments, which, even though they do not claim to be definite descriptions as they really are, seem to be reasonable interpretations of our condition here and now. The rigor of post-metaphysical discourse consists in the effort to cultivate an attitude of persuasion without proclaiming a “universal” viewpoint, which is no viewpoint at all, am attitude that is aware of coming from and addressing someone belonging to the same process, of which it has no neutral vision but risks an interpretation. In this case, a neutral reason is not only impossible, but literally senseless, as if one were to try to pull out one’s eyes in order to see things objectively.

Vattimo, Belief, Stanford UP, 1999. 46.


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Meet the Double Down

Well, day one of classes for senior year is over, and I’m feeling pretty good about this semester. I am taking a private writing class with my advisor, and I’m interested to see how a somewhat controlled atmosphere of writing privately will effect my blogging, or lack thereof. When I began this blog, I had hoped to blog regularly, which meant multiple times a week.

That has been a failure so far.

Part of that is due to one part busyness combined with numerous parts of laziness, but I think it has also been because I want to blog about interesting, half-finished ideas, ie academese, and so far I’ve been far too tentative to just throw stuff out there. I’m hoping that some new areas of study (mythic literature, church history) will provoke that somewhat, but in the meantime, I will also try to post about random things that I find on them internets and elsewhere.

I think the spirit of these new exploits is captured in KFC’s newest invention, the Double Down.

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Readers might be interested in David Horstkoetter’s excellent interview with Cornel West for the Other Journal.

Here’s a portion:

TOJ: On the economy, in front of a congressional inquiry the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, said that his model for the world was flawed. It seems that now there is room for theology to be heard—or at least there was for a very brief period—in that theologians always say that humans have a tendency toward self-collapse, especially when greedy. Is there a way for theology to talk and be heard in the discussion of collapse and rebuilding, or is theology entirely put to the side?

CW: There is going to be some theological influence no matter what: the theology of Rick Warren, the theology of Joseph Lowery, the theology of James Cone. All of these theologies are out there, and because of the prevalence of religious ideas, some version of theology is going to be influential. We just hope and pray that it will be a prophetic version. We know that that was not the case during the age of Reagan between 1980 and 2009.

You can read the rest of the interview here.

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Thanks to Bruce, who points us towards the docu-drama The Age of Stupid, which premiered yesterday in Copenhagen.

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Last night I was reading the first chapter in Gianni Vattimo’s Beyond Hermeneutics: The Meaning of Hermeneutics for Philosophy. I was struck by Vattimo’s articulation of the death of God passage in The Gay Science, and thought I would post it for future reference. It’s a bit long, but Vattimo’s summary and then extrapolation of the implications is the clearest account of this passage that I’ve read.

Nietzsche’s announcement of the death of God is not a way of expressing a metaphysical ‘thesis’ poetically and in ‘images.’  Nietzsche is not trying to say that God is dead because we have finally realized that ‘objectively he does not exist’ or that reality is such that he is excluded from it.  Nietzsche cannot make such a statement like this, at least not if we are to read him in line with his theory of interpretation; there are no facts; only interpretations, and of course this too is an interpretation . . . The announcement of the death of God is truly an announcement.  Or, in our terms, an acknowledgement of a course of events in which we are implicated and that we do not describe objectively, but interpret speculatively as concluding in the recognition that God is not necessary.  The hermeneutic complexity of all this consists in the fact that God is not necessary, is revealed as a superfluous lie (a lie precisely because superfluous) by virtue of the transformations wrought in our individual and social existence by our very belief in him.  Nietzsche’s reasoning is well known: humanity needed the God of metaphysics in order to organize a social existence that was ordered, secure and not continually exposed to the threats of nature – conquered by the construction of a social hierarchy – and of internal drives, tamed by a religiously sanctioned morality.  But today this work of reassurance is, if only relatively speaking, complete and we live in a formal and ordered social world, in which science and technology are available to rid our stay in the world of the terror that belonged to primitive man.  God seems too extreme, barbaric and excessive a hypothesis.

Taken from Gianni Vattimo, Beyond Interpretation. Stanford, SUP: 1997. 6-7.

This is, I think, a pretty complete articulation of the point. What Vattimo seems to be getting at is that the adoption of “hermeneutics” as a common idiom of Western culture is ultimately forced to accept the nihilistic logic of Nietzsche. This common idiom accepts “hermeneutics” as what amounts to a general feeling towards hermeneutics and allows such thinkers as Heidegger, Gadamer, Ricouer, Pareyson (the teacher of Vattimo and Umberto Eco. I don’t think much of his stuff is translated, so if you know Italian, snap to it), Derrida, Levinas, Habermas, Rorty, Wittgenstein etc to be considered in one way or another as dealing with hermeneutics. While it is definitely the case that most of these philosophers deal with each other in one way or another, they certainly can’t be said to form anything like a school of thought. Instead they have, as Wittgenstein would describe it, a family resemblance.

Vattimo sees this as problematic, because hermeneutics then becomes a vague, diluted, and very general term that lacks any philosophical precision. On this point it seems plainly obvious that he is correct, but I’m not sure where he is going constructively with this. I know that Vattimo accepts this nihilism-as-the-consequence-of-hermeneutics and even welcomes it as a foundation of his thought, and I suppose the direction he is heading is his “weak thought,” shared in common with John Caputo – but I have to imagine they differ in some ways because of Caputo’s Derridean bias (it doesn’t sound like Vattimo is fond of Derrida so far). I guess what I’m saying is that I’m just not sure how far we’ve come since Nietzsche, constructively. What prompted the exploration of Nietzsche for Vattimo was a discussion of the concept of Being in Heidegger. Yet this arrives at the same conclusion as Nietzsche.

I think Vattimo has designed the rest of the book so as to draw out further implications of this, so I’m very interested to get on with the reading and see what he has to say. As a side note, I hope to get better in the habit of constructive posting, just to get some half-finished thoughts down, etc. A lot of this might be for a hermeneutics independent study I am officially beginning when school starts. That’s where this Vattimo reading is coming from and I hope to read widely and produce some fairly interdisciplinary papers. So, hopefully there will be more to come, instead of shameless postings of my own poetry or links to other, more updated sites. Please don’t hesitate to comment if you have any interests in this extended philosophical family resemblence, as Wittgenstein might have said, even if it’s to suggest some reading or topics. Loosely, the topics that keep coming up in my reading on hermeneutics, are ontology, language (both are no surprise), nihilism, experience, and aesthetics.

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