Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

Ozymandias

“Half sunk, a shattered visage lies.”

My department pays me fairly handsomely to teach a particularly futile course – one among no few others – that styles itself as “Writing about Literature.”  The course is futile at both ends: Public education produces nowadays only an uneducated public, many individuals of whom, including those who are invited to college or university to matriculate, write only at the level of functional illiteracy; and none of whom has ever read anything that might qualify as literature.  I approach the course as a fully remedial one because that, in effect, is what it must be.  Dedicating the first half of the semester to “writing about poetry,” I offer up as fare for mental nourishment short poems, mostly sonnets, by writers of the Romantic generations of the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries.  I run the class-sessions as workshops in careful reading, or close reading, for which a sonnet by William Wordsworth or Samuel Taylor Coleridge or John Keats or Percy Bysshe Shelley is meet.  I ask the students to begin by noticing the periods or full stops that divide the poem into its sentences and to notice, for example, that, in verse, lines and sentences do not necessarily correspond, so that their interaction must be carefully worked out.  I ask them to notice the grammatical features of each poem.  In what person is the poem couched?  Whom does the speaker address?  What setting is implied? What argument does the speaker make in his sequence of figures and images?  I want students to see that language can function at a higher level than it does in a campus newspaper article or in the instructions for the latest cell phone.  Readers of poems must slow down their thought processes so as to notice everything and they must let the poem provoke them into thinking word by word and line by line.

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Linguistic Subscendence

Dunce - Let's Play Dunce

No Caption Necessary

It is the end of the term, so my life consists of tall stacks of student papers, which I must read and evaluate.  A number of patterns – or maybe a better term would be grammatical de-patternings – have forced themselves on my attention.  There is, for example, the almost invariable “they” employed as the subsequent of a singular subject in a sentence.  A half-dozen of these, at least, appear in every four-page theme, even in papers written by English majors.  Twenty years ago, in a journal article, I referred to this as gemination – the one and only child miraculously becomes a set of twins.  Many among the English professoriate no longer bother to correct this, but I do, insistently.  While English is a latitudinous language in terms of its regularity, the logic of its pronominal system is rigorous.  Someone is, precisely, one, not two people or more.  Ditto anyone, everyone, and no one or none, the last being the contraction of its syntactic precursor in the sentence.  In the real world, neither a person nor the man can suddenly become they or them.  To write so, however, is surely to think so; and to think so is bad arithmetic even in the first grade.  It is perhaps not an unrelated fact that when I give my students the instruction to subtract the number of questions they answered wrongly on the quiz from the total number of questions and to post the result as their score – they reach that result with glacial slowness through grimacing, dull effort.

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Foundationalism: in praise of vagueness

Foundationalism: in praise of vagueness

Thoughts inspired by teaching epistemology for the first time and listening to the podcasts of Jordan Peterson

Epistemology became a major topic for analytic philosophers because they trace their intellectual origins to Descartes and the British empiricists. Descartes dismantles the foundations of his beliefs and then tries to rebuild them on certain grounds. Having used the method of doubt to tear everything down, including even mathematics, he finds irrefutable evidence of the existence of his own mind and then tries to prove that the “external world” exists.

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The Razor Ockham *Should* Have Proposed

Ockham’s Razor is the heuristic sometimes known as the lex parsimoniae: the Law of Parsimony. As he actually proposed it:

Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate: Do not posit pluralities beyond necessity.

Ockham’s Razor as it is usually rendered:

Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem: Do not multiply entities beyond necessity.

The entities of a theory are its terms. They are not actual entities, but formal only. So the Razor is often rendered:

Do not multiply terms beyond necessity.

This makes it easy to compare theories and see which one is more parsimonious – especially if they are mathematically formalized. F = ma, for example, clearly  invokes three terms, that terminate on three sorts of properties of things. The basic idea of course is that as between two theories that adequately explain some phenomenon, the simpler is more likely to be more accurate. But why?

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The Narcissism Test: Reality. Who Needs It?

Some people exhibit an amazing lack of interest in reality, content to imagine living in a wholly invented world. The notion that much of subjective experience is illusory is strongly connected with the beginnings of “modern” philosophy.

Locke

Locke

Galileo and Locke claimed that only things which are physical and measurable really exist. Galileo argued that primary qualities; solidity, motion, figure, extension and number were really real – being the objective properties of objects and that secondary qualities; color, sight, sound, small, taste and touch did not actually exist per se. They are merely artifacts; products of the sense organs that really have nothing to do with the objects being perceived. They are merely what our brains do when confronted with sensory input and primary qualities.

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Materialist Reduction *Just Is* Elimination

To say that the organism is nothing but its atomic constituents – taking “atom” in its original Democritean sense, as the most basic and indisintegrable component of all corporeal objects – is to say that in itself it is nothing. It is to say that there is in fact no organism at all, but rather only atoms.

For anyone trying to understand anything more complex than atoms, this is obviously an unsatisfactory result. It eliminates all such complexities ontologically. If everything is nothing but atoms, then there are no such things as organisms, or societies, or ecologies, or watersheds, or even vortices, winds, currents, crystals – or, indeed, atoms in the modern, Rutherfordian sense, or for that matter protons on the one hand, or molecules on the other. What’s worse, there are then no such things as the minds and thoughts of organisms such as we. In that case, there is no such thing as the system of thoughts that constitutes materialist reduction. Having devoured all science, the doctrine devours itself.

Like all evil ideas, materialist reduction reduces in the end, and logically, to the ultimate absurdity: nothingness.

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Aesthetic Knowledge

mountains-in-the-dusk

With modern egalitarianism, the  existence of the rich is regarded as an offense to the poor, the smart to the dumb, and the good looking to the plain. Pure resentment drives this phenomenon – resentment being a combination of admiration, envy and hatred. Wanting to be rich, handsome and smart, and failing to be, these things are then hated.

Many high schools are now apparently doing away with prize-giving ceremonies and the notion of a valedictorian to spare the feelings of other students.

Moral subjectivism, or relativism, reduces morality to feelings and personal opinion. This renders moral knowledge and disputes meaningless. Aesthetic subjectivism likewise insists that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and nothing more. I encountered raised voices and outrage in a class when I recently suggested otherwise. The reaction was stronger than anything I had experienced before and seemed out of proportion to the claim. Far more contentious-seeming moral issues had not inspired any such protests. My essay Aesthetic Knowledge published at the Sydney Traditionalist Forum is my argument for aesthetic objectivism.

A Roman Fresco from Pompeii

Roman Fresco 02 Larger Image

Roman Fresco from Pompeii

The wall is a limen or boundary.  On the hither side of the wall is Nature, free and luxuriant.  On the hither side of the wall is the cultivated ornamental tree.  The fruit seems to produce itself on the thither side of the wall.  The ornament is beautiful, but Nature, the fecund lady who feeds men and women and their children, is bountiful. She responds to the farmer’s bargain: Let me understand your cycles and placate your demands and I will increase your fecundity.  Agriculture is the productive compromise between Nature and Culture, to the benefit of both.  The two-thousand-year-old wall-painting from a middle-class house in Pompeii speaks magnificently of the Western idea of Nature, with whom humanity partners, for the sake of her survival, and its — that is to say, our — survival.  Christ does not disrupt this discipline.

The hither side of the wall might be brought into the thither side, to form a garden or grove.  In Augustine’s Confessions, Original Sin finds its analogue in the autobiographer’s  penitential divulgence that when an adolescent he joined with a gang of miscreants to trespass a neighbor’s orchard-garden and steal his apples, or peaches, or plums, or whatever the edible fruit might have been.  Instead of consuming their booty, the trespassers petulantly discarded it, as though it was offal. Augustine begs forgiveness.

Augustine’s story is the germ of the Twenty-First Century’s ecological sensitivity, although the Twenty-First Century ‘s ecological sensitivity has no notion of Augustine or of confession or of the historical archive, witting knowledge of which tells us who we are.

To the west of Oswego, my adoptive civitas, the apple-orchards have benefited from three thousand years of Western horticultural science.  These orchards nowadays resemble olive- or grape-orchards.  The apple-trees are close to the ground, rounded, compact, and the fields of them look like vineyards or oleo plantations.  The work of the harvest is much eased. The cultivated changes in apple-tree morphology entail a dramatic decrease in the price of harvesting apples.  Respect for Nature is a boon.  It is a Western boon.

 

Letter to My Son: What is Postmodernism?

My Son,

I’m not using your name because the Web is public and I want to minimize the chance that your privacy will be invaded. But this letter is written mainly for you. Other people may benefit from it, but that’s just a fortunate byproduct.

As a young man, your most important task is to come to understand the world.  A man cannot live well if he does not know what’s happening.

The contemporary world has been disrupted. But the disruptors (the liberals) are a wicked bunch, and their disruption, which is really destruction, threatens you and everything you love (or should love.) You are just one person and you cannot stop the destruction by yourself. But as a first step you can understand the disruption by understanding how the world really works, and how humans should behave.

That’s what I want most to get across: What reality really is, and how humans should behave. There’s a lot to say, but I can only write one letter at a time. This letter concerns postmodernism.

*

Postmodernism is one of the defining features of the modern world, so we must understand it. We don’t need to understand everything about it; we’ll leave that to the scholars. But we have to understand its essence, the thing that makes it what it is. Continue reading