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Burn This Book!

By Benjamin Winterhalter

In 1592, the Chinese philosopher Li Zhi wrote this preface:

I desire to burn this book. I say that I must burn and discard it. I cannot keep it… As for those who find my work grates upon their ears, they most certainly will succeed in killing me…

Li Zhi titled his manuscript, fittingly enough, A Book to Burn. The title can be read in many ways: as a challenge, a warning, a self-fulfilling prophecy, or even a bit of black humor. He followed it up with two sequels: Another Book to Burn and A Book to Hide. What drove him to publish a manuscript so controversial that he was certain it would bring about his death?

Li Zhi’s exasperation with the corruption, greed, and superficiality of the powerbrokers in his society fueled his writing. As he wrote, “if the ancient sages had not built up indignation they wouldn’t have written anything. To write something without indignation, that would be like shivering when you’re not cold, or groaning when you’re not sick. Even if they had done that, who would pay attention?”

Li Zhi never gave himself over fully to any one ideology. He called himself a Confucian, but was endlessly critical of Confucianism as he saw it practiced in the world around him. Even when he joined a Buddhist monastery and shaved his head like a monk, he let his beard grow long and refused to stop eating meat. You could call him a contrarian or a crank, or you could say that he was one of those people whose uncompromising principles make it impossible to live with the world as it is.

Nor did Li Zhi show much interest in creating an internally consistent philosophy. In fact, A Book to Burn is extravagantly and even joyfully self-contradictory. Perhaps, as some scholars have argued, that was his way of forcing readers to exercise their own judgement and form their own opinions. He didn’t want to become one of those dusty experts whose words people parroted without real understanding.

This was a radical position, because Li Zhi lived in a time when cultural status and success were deeply tied to “toeing the line” of acceptable beliefs. To receive a high-ranking position in the bureaucracy, young men were required to pass the famously difficult civil service exams. Success depended on regurgitating orthodox opinions. There was even a scandal in 1595, when it was revealed that students had passed the exams by copying example essays word-for-word from their study manuals. As a youth, Li Zhi passed the first level of the civil service examinations, but he refused to sit for the second, thus taking himself out of the running for any truly prestigious positions. This was perhaps the first sign of the rebellious streak that would come to define his life and work.

Despite his top-notch classical education, Li Zhi valued popular entertainment as well as the classics, and the vernacular tongue as well as the refined language of scholars. He followed the doctrine of Wang Yangming, believing that anyone had the potential to become a sage. He argued that women had equal intellectual powers to men, and were only deprived the opportunity to develop them. He even took on a female disciple, Mei Danran—an extremely shocking choice at the time.

Li Zhi challenged the orthodox belief, laid out in the classic text the Doctrine of the Mean, that the relationship between ruler and subject was the fundamental basis of social order. Instead, he argued for friendship as the most important social relationship. Indeed, Li Zhi’s friendships were central to the development of his philosophy. A Book to Burn started as a bundle of letters circulated among Li Zhi’s friends, and, in its preface, he justifies his choice to publish such a dangerous volume with the hope that “if one of my essays speaks to the heart of another, then perhaps I may find somebody who understands me!”

Yet the letters also record the strain that Li Zhi’s uncompromising principles put on his friends. He believed in harshly criticizing those friends who strayed from what he saw as right. As a result, many of his relationships suffered. As Rivi Handler-Spitz, Pauline Lee, and Haun Saussy write in the introduction to their translation of Li Zhi’s selected writings: “A Book to Burn reports the recurrent bewilderment and loneliness Li experienced as one by one his friends grew tired of his relentless faultfinding and abandoned him.”

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On the other hand, those of his friends who refused to compromise their ideals often suffered for it. In 1579, one of Li Zhi’s role models, the philosopher He Xinyin, died in prison after being arrested for his radical ideas. Li Zhi must have known that the same fate was coming to him, sooner or later. In 1602, the Wanli emperor ordered Li Zhi arrested. He died in prison that same year, and all copies of A Book to Burn were ordered to be thrown on the bonfire, fulfilling the promise of the title.

Yet the official prohibitions only increased the text’s cachet. Zhu Guozhen wrote that almost every member of the literati kept a treasured copy of A Book to Burn hidden like a precious rarity. In fact, Li Zhi’s name became such a selling point that booksellers slapped his name on entirely fabricated manuscripts. Wang Benke wrote in a preface to one of his books, “Within the four seas there is no one who does not read this gentleman’s writings; there is no one who does not desire to read them all; they read them without stopping, and some even read pirated editions.” Not bad at all.

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Whose Life?

This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, by the philosopher Martin Hägglund, who teaches at Yale, is a book anyone committed to public-facing scholarship ought to take note of. This is all the ...

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How Ken Liu Translates, and Why He Writes

Ken Liu is a celebrated author of American speculative fiction and a pathbreaking translator of Chinese science fiction into English. He has won the ...

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The Transformative Power of Publishing

By Christopher Long

Earlier this summer, I had the honor of offering the closing keynote address of the 2019 Association of University Presses annual conference held in Detroit. The address was entitled The Transformative Power of Publishing, and it argued that the values that shape our publishing practices have the capacity to transform the culture of higher education.

Values of openness and dialogue always inform my work and I have long sought to put these values into practice in the modes by which I share and present my ideas. This commitment to performative consistency led me to develop the keynote address in the form of a Tweetstorm, a mode of presentation that enabled me to share my ideas with a wider public and invited broad engagement with themes I introduced.

A Few Words about the Tweetstorm Process

A number of people have asked me about my process in developing this Tweetstorm presentation, so I thought I would say a few words about it here before embedding the presentation and responses below.

Using the iPad Twitter application, I drafted twelve tweets, each with up to four pictures which were to serve as slides for the presentation. As I developed the tweets, I saved them as drafts in a thread in the Twitter application. (The key is not to accidentally send the thread before you have completed the series!) I used Keynote to develop some of the slides, saving them as images that could then be attached to tweets. The nice thing about using images in this way is that you can tag up to 10 people who have been engaged with the theme of a tweet in the image itself. So, as I developed the presentation, I was able to mention and give credit to colleagues who helped shape some of ideas central to the presentation. Doing this intentionally enabled me to live out a commitment to collegiality through the presentation itself.

Drafting the presentation in this way requires you to consider both how you want to present ideas to those in the audience and how you want those who are not physically present to experience the address. Attending to the multiple dimensions a Tweetstorm presentation opens an opportunity to reflect more intentionally on how the mode of presentation relates to the ideas expressed. How will what you say in person add value to what you show on screen? How will someone unable to hear the oral presentation experience the themes online? How can a presentation about the transformative power of publishing become a catalyst of transformation itself by virtue of the manner in which it is made public?

Affordances and Limitations of a Tweetstorm Presentation

This last question is at the heart of my interest in performative publishing. How ideas are made public shapes the capacity of the ideas themselves to transform publics in meaningful ways. The Tweetstorm form opens opportunities for engagement unavailable to traditional presentations. There are, of course, affordances and limitations to the Tweetstorm form. Chief among the limitations, from my perspective, is that Twitter is a for-profit company oriented toward generating revenue based on advertising. Their algorithms are oriented toward maximizing revenue, rather than to enriching communities of scholarship. For me, however, the affordances of broad public exposure and multi-modal expression outweigh these limitations. Still, even as I share the presentation here on my blog, I am aware of the extent to which enduring access to this work depends ultimately on a platform that might disappear if it proves no longer to be financially viable.

Until then, I have curated the Tweetstorm presentation into a Twitter Moment and share it here for ongoing discussion.

Impossible Belonging

If the sharp end of critique’s job is to name injury, then it also has a soft lining that is oriented around recovery and repair. Even if a particular critical project stays with injury rather than whatever might come after, what else is there to want, in the wake of naming injury, but to fix it? Both writers and readers of such critiques are thrust into a morality tale, the drama of selves...

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Judith Butler: The Early Years

By Catherine Halley

Judith Butler’s famous 1990 book Gender Trouble features on countless undergraduate reading lists in the humanities. The book’s wide-ranging line of inquiry, unforgiving style, and often abrupt shifts in focus are well known—and widely lamented among readers. Many students have been daunted by the book, and deriding especially challenging snippets has become something of a rite of passage.

Thankfully, a more rarely read set of texts can rescue a reader from despair. Between 1985 and 1989, Judith Butler published six short essays introducing ideas she would return to throughout her career. Each essay addresses a particular concern, in most cases focusing on a single thinker. Between these six pieces, Butler outlines a distinctive view of gender as tangled up with embodiment. This perspective opposes any tidy distinction between sex as both natural and bodily and gender as both cultural and historical. This idea is critical, and bears repeating: Butler is attacking the commonly assumed sex-gender distinction.

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The French social theorists Butler addresses viewed our bodies as being immersed in social norms, in legal definitions, and in everyday routines. As Butler summarized it in “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution”:

The body is not passively scripted with cultural codes, as if it were a lifeless recipient of wholly pre-given cultural relations. But neither do embodied selves pre-exist the cultural conventions which essentially signify bodies.

This is a challenging claim. But Butler’s basic idea is that our experience of society is always through our bodies. Before Gender Trouble, Butler explored this idea repeatedly.

Variations on Beauvoir

The first of Butler’s early essays, “Variations on Sex and Gender in Beauvoir, Wittig and Foucault” was published in 1985. Most of the essay focuses on French feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, and particularly her great feminist treatise The Second Sex. Beauvoir held that there was no separable self, a self able to stand apart from the process of thinking. For Beauvoir (and Butler) there could be no “I” which predated cultural involvement, no aloof “thinker within,” staring into life from outside. Beauvoir thus saw gender as a project. Womanhood was never a settled matter; it changed across time. As Butler puts it, gender is “an incessant project, a daily act of reconstruction and interpretation.” This existentialist position implies a greatly expanded role for human behavior. As Butler puts it, if this view holds true, “then both gender and sex seem to be thoroughly cultural affairs.” (This phrasing echoes in the title of a great essay Butler would pen a decade later: “Merely Cultural.”)

But this argument left a dilemma. As Butler asked: “How can gender be both a matter of choice and cultural construction?” Beauvoir’s treatment of embodiment offered one way of answering this. Beauvoir proposed the term situation to describe the body’s status. Through our bodies, we can reinterpret existing mores, customs, and expectations. While never outside a social context, the body was also always active. The body’s social involvement can be experienced as a kind of oppression, but it also grants a license for liberation through “re-articulation,” or self-definition. Bodies are both the site of oppression and the means of escape.

In this early piece, Butler had already settled on a style characterized by a readiness to tackle contradictory aspects of gender:

Becoming a gender is an impulsive yet mindful process of interpreting a cultural reality laden with sanctions, taboos and prescriptions. The choice to assume a certain kind of body, to live or wear one’s body a certain way, implies a world of already established corporeal styles. To choose a gender is to interpret received gender norms in a way that reproduces and organizes them anew. Less a radical act of creation, gender is a tacit project to renew a cultural history in one’s own corporeal terms.

Our bodies can challenge the norms we encounter, but we also recreate those norms through our bodies.

Butler is less approving in her treatment of Monique Wittig, who she describes as “alarming.” Wittig saw gender as a weaponized delusion. While anatomical differences between people appear in manifold ways (for instance, the extension or inset of an earlobe), it was only those differences associated directly with reproduction which were declared “sexual.” Men and women are set apart on the basis of fairly arbitrary traits, onto which a contrived meaning is imposed. Then, for Wittig, a retroactive naturalization of the existing political order takes place: the sex we are now is presented as what we were all along.

This basic categorization of anatomies was threatened by the very existence of lesbians. Lesbian erotic practices were not limited to the genitals, and lesbians refused to define themselves as wives married to a particular man. Wittig’s writing envisioned these women making revolutionary efforts to rework their anatomies—and their societies—in their own terms. Butler grows incomprehending as the essay continues:

It might well seem that Wittig has entered into a Utopian ground that leaves the rest of us situated souls waiting impatiently this side of her liberating imaginary space. After all, The Lesbian Body is a fantasy, and it is not clear whether we readers are supposed to recognize a potential course of action in that text, or simply be dislocated from our usual assumptions about bodies and pleasure.

Despite this distancing, Wittig’s criticism of heterosexuality clearly enjoyed a profound grip on Butler. Both thinkers shared a lesbian reading of Beauvoir. Wittig saw sex as a category that required the political imposition of heterosexuality, which Wittig calls the “heterosexual regime.” Clear fingerprints of this position are found on Butler’s later description of a “heterosexual matrix.”

But Wittig’s strategy was more sweeping than Butler’s. Rather than subversion, Wittig argues for an end to sexual division itself. Butler’s doubts are at once practical and theoretical: “On the one hand, Wittig calls for a transcendence of sex altogether, but her theory might equally well lead to an inverse conclusion, to the dissolution of binary restrictions through the proliferation of genders.”

Whether abolishing gender would mean no or infinite genders is a recurring question in feminist thought (that I’ve examined in another essay). Butler ultimately says that Wittig’s politics are “profoundly humanistic,” but she certainly intended this remark as a putdown. Butler could never advocate doing away with gender altogether. This cautiousness was most certainly advantageous in the 1980s and 1990s, a time of collapsing fortune for the left internationally amid the rise of the New Right. Today, her timidity reads differently.

This essay also introduces Michel Foucault, who is closely associated with Butler’s thought. Foucault, like Wittig, saw sex as a wholly political assembly of anatomical features and animating drives, drawn together by the demands of power. Butler suggests that this agreement across contexts has “improbable but significant consequences for feminist theory.” From this medley of complex and challenging texts, Butler takes a surprisingly clear message: “The political program for overcoming binary restrictions ought to be concerned… with cultural innovation rather than myths of transcendence.” In other words, a newfound creativity is required for fruitful gender politics, rather than a myth of rising above distinction—or idealizing androgyny.

A second essay, “Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex,” published in Yale French Studies is really a second version of “Variations on Sex,” only more laser-focused on the thorny position on embodiment found in Beauvoir. Butler briefly addresses the question of sex, which she claims is more easily settled than womanhood: a sex is defined by what one cannot also be (those who can bear children being bracketed as female, as opposed to those who can inseminate). Butler then doubles back to acknowledge that chromosomal variation could provide yet another layer of complexity.

However, this is not an anatomically sufficient account of intersex variations: in many cases those born intersex have XY chromosomes accompanied by an insensitivity to sex hormones that causes them to be taken for female. Nevertheless, this acknowledgement of intersex experiences was unusual for theory of the time, and to Butler’s lasting credit she would follow up this early inclusivity in her essay “Doing Justice to Someone,” on the case of David Reimer.

Butler’s View of Gender

Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” was published in Theatre Journal. This article debuts Butler’s most famous argument: that gender is performative. In other words, that gendered practices are generative of gender, rather than reflecting any innate inner truth. Easily her greatest contribution to gender theory, Butler’s “performativity” argument also ranks as one of the most widely misunderstood propositions in the history of thought. In interviews and writings since, Butler has been quick to distinguish the performativity thesis from describing gender as simply performance. “Performative” is a quality of how we live out our genders: becoming by doing.

“Performative Acts and Gender Constitution” offers a clear account of Butler’s performativity thesis by opposing it to the expressive view of gender. Performativity was intended to replace the framework of gender roles (commonplace in gender theory then and since):

Gender cannot be understood as a role which either expresses or disguises an interior “self,” whether that “self” is conceived as sexed or not.

The expressive view Butler sought to replace presents gender as an inner self, which practices allow to emerge. By contrast, Butler saw those practices, and their repetition, as the source of gender.

This essay hints at an intimate familiarity with the restrictions and stigmatization that define gendered experience:

As a corporeal field of cultural play, gender is a basically innovative affair, although it is quite clear that there are strict punishments for contesting the script by performing out of turn or through unwarranted improvisations.

While Butler sees gender as potentially liberatory, she was also well aware that gender norms are often experienced in terms of confinement, stigmatization, and chastisement over deviance. “Performativity” describes the contours of an ongoing field of struggle.

On Embodiment

Butler’s final three publications before Gender Trouble were all released in 1989. Each engages with a particular thinker’s thoughts on gender and the body: Julia Kristeva, Michel Foucault, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

The Body Politics of Julia Kristeva,” published in the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia offers a critical view of a critical view. Kristeva, the Bulgarian-French feminist philosopher, attempted to correct the androcentrism of the seminal Parisian psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan. While Lacan stressed the importance of the patriarchy in structuring the symbolic, and therefore language, Kristeva presents a version of psychoanalysis that features a formative trauma of maternal separation. In this view, motherhood occupied a dominating and “pre-discursive” role (in that maternal attachment comes before speech). Kristeva saw maternity as “semiotic” in scope—it unfolds on the level of sign-process, extending beyond mere linguistics.

Butler finds two aspects of Kristeva’s worldview unacceptable: Her view of motherhood accepts that women (or females?) wish to give birth as a matter of “pre-discursive biological necessity.” To be a female means to want to give birth. Secondly, this view has no place for lesbians as full participants in culture, with Kristeva instead declaring them “inherently psychotic.”

For Kristeva, female homosexuality was too radical a break with the paternal law and symbolic order to be culturally intelligible. Since heterosexuality was defined (for either partner) as a means of getting over the trauma of separation from the maternal body, desiring other women was anti-social. While heterosexuality’s psychodrama joined together two matchings sets of traumas, lesbianism could play no such role. Butler gently implies that Kristeva is examining her own phobia, rather than the phenomenon of lesbian desire itself:

Significantly, this description of lesbian experience is effected from the outside, and tells us more about the fantasies that a fearful heterosexual culture produces to defend against its own homosexual possibilities than about lesbian experience itself.

This defense of lesbianism was hardly surprising coming from Butler. Having spent most of her adult life out, Butler even played a minor role in the so called “lesbian sex wars.” During the early 1980s, sadomasochist groups such as New York City’s Lesbian Sex Mafia or California’s Samois were charged by more “radical” lesbian feminists with being subversive agents of patriarchy. In 1982, the Against Sadomasochism collection included an essay criticising Samois entitled, “Lesbian S&M: The Politics of Dis-Illusion,” written under the penname Judy Butler. Butler had moved well clear of this circle—and this commitment—by the later 1980s. In these essays, Butler often cited the queer thinker Gayle Rubin, once a prominent member of Samois.

By 1989, Butler had gained profound doubts that categories such as “female” or “the maternal” could be relied upon for an emancipatory politics: “The female body that [Kristeva] seeks to express is itself a construct produced by the very law it is supposed to undermine.” For Butler, female identity could not be presupposed, set apart from legal regimes as having some primordial force.

Next, Butler addresses Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a major French phenomenologist. Nine years earlier, Iris Marion Young had offered a favorable feminist account of Merleau-Ponty, but Butler was considerably more critical.

Butler charges Merleau-Ponty with assuming heterosexuality as the default state. In Merleau-Ponty’s examination of the famous Schneider case, a brain-damaged patient of influential German psychologists Adhémar Gelb and Kurt Goldstein, Merleau-Ponty assumes that Schneider’s lack of interest in women who he finds unappealing on a personal level is evidence of “repression.” Butler suggests it instead makes Schneider a “feminist of sorts.” Merleau-Ponty expected men to experience desire as an objectifying force, presupposing heterosexuality as a universal norm. This resulted in him failing not only as a feminist, but as a phenomenologist:

Viewed as an expression of sexual ideology, The Phenomenology of Perception reveals the cultural construction of the masculine subject as a strangely disembodied voyeur whose sexuality is strangely non-corporeal… Erotic experience is almost never described as tactile or physical or even passionate.

Later scholars have argued that Butler’s harsh approach overlooks a potential radicalism found in embodied phenomenology. And other subsequent scholarship has noted that Beauvoir’s theorizing was informed by Merleau-Ponty, developing their shared key theme of ambiguity.

Foucault and the Paradox of Bodily Inscriptions” was published in The Journal of Philosophy and examines how Foucault’s work, taken as a whole, “raises the question of whether there is in fact a body which is external to its construction, invariant in some of its structures which… represents a dynamic locus of resistance to culture per se.” The essay seems unable to answer this question. One Foucault text is aimlessly compared to the next, without considering whether the resulting coherence may have an obvious source: developments in Foucault’s thought occurred as he completed one work after another.

Perhaps most remarkable is the essay’s opening line: “The position that the body is constructed is one that is surely, if not immediately, associated with Michel Foucault.” Today, it’s difficult to imagine a more immediate association than this one, in no small part as a result of Gender Trouble.

* * *

Between these six essays, Butler outlined a view of gender as extending beyond any straightforward distinction. Gender was a means used by any given individual to situate themselves in their era’s prevailing mores. Or to resist them. Performativity is at once the invariant burden and liberatory promise offered by Butler’s thinking. The “construction” Butler has in mind when she writes of gender is a messy and ongoing process, always featuring both punishment for transgression and the potential for getting free.

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The Extremely Real Science behind the Basilisk’s Lethal Gaze

By Jonathan Aprea

The basilisk, which slays its victims with a single glance, seems as fantastical as the scorpion-tailed manticore or the Barnacle Tree, which sprouts goslings like fruit. But there was a perfectly reasonable scientific explanation for the basilisk’s lethal look: the extramission theory of vision.

According to the extramission theory, which was developed by such thinkers as Plato, Galen, Euclid, and Ptolemy, our eyes are more than the passive recipients of images. Rather, they send out eye-beams—feelers made of elemental fire that spread, nerve-like, to create our field of vision. These luminous tendrils stream out from our eyes into the world, apprehending objects in their path and relaying back to us their qualities.

The extramissionists proposed a theory of vision completely alien to our current way of thinking. Though they saw the world in the same way we did, the way they saw seeing was something else entirely. In the words of Empedocles:

…as when a man who intends to make a journey prepares a light for himself, a flame of fire burning through a wintry night… in the same way the elemental fire, wrapped in membranes and delicate tissues, was then concealed in the round pupil.

In this view, sight is essentially a species of touch. The extramissionist theory explained why it is that, as objects recede into the distance, their details blur: because they take up less of our visual field, there are fewer eye-beams to strike their surface and feel its intricacies.

Likewise, when objects are too far too see, it’s because our eye-beams can’t stretch far enough to reach them. This explains why squinting can help you see distant details: the narrowed aperture focuses your eye-beams onto a single point. The luminous gleam of a cat’s eyes in the dark was considered to be visible proof of the fire emanating from their pupils, and one philosopher proposed that the reason we get dizzy watching waves or wheels whirl is that following the motion with our eyes actually makes our eye-beams twist and churn.

Of course, there were objections. For instance, how is it that we can see the constellations the instant we turn our eyes to the night sky, if gazing on the stars means our visual tendrils must stretch far enough to touch them? To answer riddles like these, alternative versions of the theory developed. Some argued that, when our eyes meet the air, they convert the atmosphere itself into an organ of our senses. Others argued that the objects we see send out beams of their own, which meet and meld with the beams of our eyes.

Interestingly, the counter-theory to extramission—intromission—is almost equally alien. Democritus, an intromissionist, put forth this bizarre theory: the objects around us slough off a continuous stream of atom-thin flakes, called eidola, each a miniature replica of its source. Eidola float through the air until they meet our open eyes and stamp themselves into our perception. The best evidence for this theory, according to its proponents, was the fact that when you gaze into someone’s eyes you see a floating miniature of the scene around them—the eidola, captured.

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The debate between intromissionists and extramissionists continued well into the Middle Ages, leaving a lasting imprint on art and literature. Byzantine icons, for instance, derived much of their reverential impact from the idea that worshippers were, in fact, caressing the holy object with their gaze. The depths and reliefs, the play of light and shadow, and the rich, shimmering textures were all meant to evoke the sensation of visual touch.

On the other hand, medieval writers found a less holy use for the concept—erotic poetry. Poets wrote of being pierced by the arrow-like gaze of their beloved, and revelled in the idea that meeting their lady’s eyes was in fact a kind of mutual caress. John Donne wrote one of the most striking depictions of extramissive sight when he penned these lines:

Our hands were firmly cemented
With a fast balm, which thence did spring;
Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread
Our eyes upon one double string.

As for the basilisk, if the rays of the eyes could touch you, it stood to reason that, under the right circumstances, they could also hurt you. Sir Thomas Browne expressed this best, writing “it is not impossible, what is affirmed of this animal, the visible rays of their eyes carrying forth the subtilest portion of their poison, which is received by the eye of man or beast, infecteth first the brain, and is from thence communicated to the heart.” For the extramissionists, looks could kill.

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teaching the Gorgias

By ayjay

Tomorrow I’ll be teaching Plato’s Gorgias, and today I’ve been reviewing it. It strikes me, as it always does when I read this dialogue, that this is Socrates at his worst, and I find myself asking, as I always ask when I read this dialogue, whether Plato knew that.

Socrates’s chief opponent here, Callicles, is contemptible in his frank hedonism and lust for power, but he makes one point (482e) that I find compelling: He says that Socrates pretends to care about truth, but in fact only tries, through subtly shifting the terms of an argument, to manipulate people into admitting inconsistencies which he then pounces on. A little later on (485e) he calls this habit adolescent — and that seems right to me. Socrates offers the occasional noble speech about wanting to find the best way to live — or rather, about how he has found and embodies the best way to live — but in actual dialectical disputation seems to care only about trivial point-scoring based on shifting the meanings of words. (“Aren’t we claiming that people who feel pleasure are good? And that people suffering distress are bad?”)

No wonder Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles all get thoroughly exasperated with him, at first giving answers “on cue,” as Callicles puts it, and then simply declining to respond, so that for an extended period of the dialogue Socrates is reduced to answering his own questions. And even when Callicles starts responding again, it’s only “so that you can get on and finish the argument.” (Though later still — as Socrates doggedly pursues his cheese-paring course — he wonders, “Can’t you speak without someone answering your questions?”)

Now, one way to explain this is to say that Socrates’s three interlocutors are completely lacking in the philosophical temperament — like many of their fellow Athenians, who will, we are sometimes reminded obliquely in this dialogue, eventually put Socrates to death — and that my own sympathy with their exasperation suggests that I lack that temperament as well.

But if so, why does Plato have Socrates make so many arguments that (as every decent commentary points out) are simply bad? Just to emphasize the contempt that Socrates has for these people? That doesn’t seem likely.

The Gorgias is a very strange dialogue and poses all sorts of pedagogical difficulties. Because if what I have said here about Socrates and his interlocutors is correct, no one in this dialogue makes good arguments.

Nietzsche and Montaigne

By ayjay

Today I had the privilege of participating in a panel discussion of my friend Rob Miner’s new book Nietzsche and Montaigne. This is the outline of my talk.


On Health

Introductory thoughts

  • First of all, what a superb book this is!
  • My learning is not comparable to Rob’s, so all you’ll get from me is a kind of riff on a theme that, when I was reading Rob’s book, struck me as especially interesting, and that theme is health.
  • The question of what makes for a healthy human life — and I want to stress the importance of this idea of health as opposed to something like Aristotelian eudaimonia, — is an essential one for Montaigne, and Nietzsche picks up on that, at first endorsing but ultimately revising Montaigne’s understanding.
  • I’m going to unpack that claim very briefly and suggestively here, and claim (there’s no time today to argue) that insofar as the two thinkers differ, Montaigne has the better of it.

Health in Montaigne

  • As Rob writes (p.45):
    • “Montaigne understands philosophy as a power or virtue that dwells in the soul, making it and the body healthy. It aims to have a certain effect on its practitioner. What is this effect? Philosophy, he writes, ‘should make tranquility and gladness shine out from within, should form in its own mold the outward demeanor, and consequently arm it with graceful pride, an active and joyous bearing, and a contented and good-natured countenance.’ [The anticipation of Nietzsche’s designation of true philosophy as a “gay science” should be obvious. Rob now comments,] Here two aspects of the human person are distinguished: an inward and an outward. Philosophy brings these aspects togerther, so that the outward expresses the inward, resulting in the rare condition that Montaigne calls ‘healthy.’ Health is the condition that philosophy brings about; it is not the default condition.”
    • Rob then quotes a passage from the essay “Of Presumption”: “The body has a great part in our being, it holds a high rank in it; so its structure and composition are well worth consideration.”
  • Now, I would like to suggest — and I make this suggest under correction by nobler minds — that in his later essays Montaigne shifts this emphasis somewhat. Consider this famous passage from “Of Repentance”:
    • “Meanwhile I loathe that consequential [or ‘accidental’] repenting which old age brings. That Ancient who said that he was obliged to the passing years for freeing him from sensual pleasures held quite a different opinion from mine: I could never be grateful to infirmity for any good it might do me…. Our appetites are few when we are old: and once they are over we are seized by a profound disgust. I can see nothing of conscience in that: chagrin and feebleness imprint on us a lax and snotty virtue. We must not allow ourselves to be so borne away by natural degeneration that it bastardizes our judgement…. My temptations are so crippled and enfeebled that they are not worth opposing. I can conjure them away by merely stretching out my hands. Confront my reason with my former longings and I fear that that it will show less power of resistance than once it did. I cannot see that, of itself, it judges in any way differently now than it did before, nor that it is freshly enlightened. So if it has recovered it is a botched recovery. A wretched sort of cure, to owe one’s health to sickliness.”
    • He then argues for a kind of commensurate exchange of virtue between the mind and the body: “Let the mind awaken and quicken the heaviness of the body: let the body arrest the lightness of the mind and fix it fast.”
    • And at this point Montaigne does something rather unusual, for him — he quotes a Christian authority, St. Augustine, from the City of God: “He who eulogizes the nature of the soul as the sovereign good and who indicts the nature of the flesh as an evil desires the soul with a fleshly desire and flees from the flesh in a fleshly way, since his thought is based on human vanity not on divine truth.”
  • So I think Montaigne may have reached a position near the end of his life where he might not believe, as he once did, that “philosophy [is] a power or virtue that dwells in the soul, making it and the body healthy.” He might say rather that whether one is capable of philosophy depends as much on the “power or virtue” of the body as to the excellence of the mind — and that, by ignoring this fact, we come to think that we have become true philosophers, fully enacting our philosophical commitments, when in fact we have only suffered debilitation of the body. We interpret bodily disease as mental strength.
  • Montaigne does not seem to think that we can do anything about this: we cannot make the body strong again when through old age or some other affliction it begins to fail. But we can at least know our own true condition.

Health in Nietzsche

  • In a crucial passage near the end of his book, Rob returns to the matter of health — not for the first time, mind you — and explores the notion of “great health” that Nietzsche introduces late in The Gay Science (#382). There are many things that one could say about this exceptional section of Nietzsche’s great transitional work.
    • Nietzsche introduces the concept thus: “We who are new, nameless, hard to understand; we premature births of an as yet unproved future – for a new end, we also need a new means, namely, a new health that is stronger, craftier, tougher, bolder, and more cheerful than any previous health.” (Note the persistent emphasis, which wwe see also in Montaigne, on cheerfulness).
    • And at the end of the section he suggests that only great health can produce a new great seriousness: “the ideal of a human, superhuman well-being and benevolence that will often enough appear inhuman for example, when it places itself next to all earthly seriousness heretofore, all forms of solemnity in gesture, word, tone, look, morality, and task as if it were their most incarnate and involuntary parody – and in spite of all this, it is perhaps only with it that the great seriousness really emerges; that the real question mark is posed for the first time; that the destiny of the soul changes; the hand of the clock moves forward; the tragedy begins.” (Isn’t that last clause rather startling?)
    • But I want to focus on something else in the section, something almost buried and yet vital: “Anyone who wants to know from the adventures of his own experience how it feels to be the discoverer or conqueror of an ideal, or to be an artist, a saint, a lawmaker, a sage, a pious man, a soothsayer, an old-style divine loner – any such person needs one thing above all – the great health, a health that one doesn’t only have, but also acquires continually and must acquire because one gives it up again and again, and must give it up!”
  • Why must one give it up, and what does that mean?
    • Here we need to turn to Nietzsche’s last book, Ecco Homo, where he quotes the entirety of the section of The Gay Science I have just explored, and connects it to Zarathustra as an ideal type: he says that “great health” is the physiological precondition of Zarathustra, and therefore of what Nietzsche wants to be.
    • And yet, still in Ecce Homo, immediately after citing this passage Nietzsche writes, “Afterwards” — that is, after writing the first part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, or as Nietzsche would say after “finding” it — “I lay ill for a few weeks in Genoa. This was followed by a melancholy spring in Rome, when I put up with life — it was not easy.” This does not sound like someone in great health!
    • But his point here is that the achievement of something great inevitably depletes one’s energies, is costly to one’s health. When walking in the mountains to “find” his book, he says, “my muscular agility has always been at its greatest when my creative energy is flowing most abundantly. The body is inspired: let’s leave the ‘soul’ out of it… I could often be seen dancing; in those days I could be walking around on mountains for seven or eight hours without a trace of tiredness. I slept well and laughed a lot — I was the epitome of sprightliness and patience.”
    • Then came what he calls the crisis: “everything great, be it a work or a deed, once it has been accomplished, immediately turns against whoever did it. By virtue of having done it, he is now weak — he can no longer endure his deed, can no longer face up to it. To have something behind you that you should never have wanted, something that constitutes a nodal point in the destiny of humanity — and from then on to have it on top of you!… It almost crushes you.”
    • A little later Nietzsche says of this kind of experience: “This is how a god suffers.” But another way to put the point is: Because I suffer so profoundly, I must be a god.

Concluding thoughts

  • So let me now try to draw these threads together.
    • For Montaigne, it is surely true that health is mens sana in corpore sano, but because we are mortal, because we age and decline, the healthy mind must also be one that accommodates itself to the body’s inevitable changes. This means that a healthy mind in a less-than-healthy body must seek a kind of self-knowledge that is hard for prideful human beings, who always want to give themselves credit they don’t deserve. Montaigne believed that one should always, as the Stoics taught, strive to live “according to nature,” and since it is our nature to grow old and feeble before we die, that Stoic mandate requires a certain ironic acceptance of declining powers. This is the kind of health appropriate to a changeable mortal.
    • For Nietzsche, by contrast, this might be all well and good for the “higher cattle” — but not for one who aspires to the great seriousness. For one of the Zarathustra type, life is an endless dialectic of boundless, ecstatic energy and exhausted disease. Indeed, this is, I think what great health is: not the energy alone, but the energy and the exhaustion in inevitable exchange.
    • And this is why it is impossible to conceive of Nietzsche as an old man.

Practicing Public Philosophy

By Christopher Long

“Practicing Public Scholarship.” Public Philosophy Journal 1, no. 1 (2018). https://doi.org/10.25335/m5/ppj.1.1-1.

Situating the Public Philosophy Journal at the intersection of philosophy and questions of public concern, this essay articulates how the journal hopes to practice public scholarship through a formative review process designed to create communities capable of enriching public life.

This is the inaugural essay in the inaugural issue of the Public Philosophy Journal. 

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