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Two Short Poems about (Post) Modern Philosophy

On Trying to Read Heidegger’s Being and Time
What is worth noting about such rarefied
reasoning is that so much needs to be clarified.

Deconstruct This
How high he climbed up a tree
in his study Of Grammatology!

Fiction Submission

The following story was submitted to me in hopes of having more work published by Korrektiv Press. I explained that we really are a boutique publishing house, an elite group of writers catering to an even more elite group of readers (alas, you read that correctly), and that it would take some time—not to mention a long, hard look by our editorial staff—before his stuff ever saw it through to print. The fellow responded that this was just fine—suited him to a t, in fact, since he was looking for as much feedback as possible. To which I thought, well, why don’t we just post it to the blog, opening up his work to whatever commentary our good readers choose to provide. So … Have at it, folks.

Debita Nostra

Sedately, a hand as though Michelangelo’s Adam’s stretched toward the bulletproof window, outside of which sprung April’s sweet shoots, this man’s hand anticipating no divine spark, reaching instead for infinite space. Garrett stared there, almost praying in spite of it all, sing in me muse of many harried years, I am a man unskilled in the ways of contenting, lax index finger then firming to flick an ant—exiled or escaped from the anthill’s very brotherhood—not utterly destroying it, but doing a crippling work on the hind legs. Dominion over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. Should tell someone here. Insecticide. Black dots distracting work that could be done. Contrary to all efficiency and decency. Not that he cared but they would wouldn’t they. Black dots better than black plague, better than the oriental rat flea that gorged on blood and spread it across Europa, eliminating at least one hundred million in seven years, 1353-1346, as though yesterday, danse macabre, dance my little wounded ant, skeletal epitome of eternal mortality, set us dancing again, mon Dieu, Dominus. Dominion. Dominus vobiscum.

Garrett brushed back his black bangs that when hanging ceased just before they reached the eyebrows. Covering it. The broad forehead. That’s how God fits the brains in there, Uncle James had said more than once, often upon introducing him from afar but within earshot—and here he is, broad-forehead-big-brained bullox, pressing blood-blanched fingers against the off white keyboard, trying to formulate a response to client ZX3820 and failing, yet carrying on the slow-motion slog against the debt, stacking his hecatomb against the mortal god who sent summons biweekly: $123,000 total, for which reason we would like to offer you the payment plan option of $1,230 per month, which, o man, measured against your Cosmoception wages of $2,500 per month, leaves you $1,270 per month. Forget not the old cafe job that brought in $1,300 per month at best, if tips bespoke the jubilee generosity, that as dictated by that little known book of Leviticus and insisted upon by the prophet Isaiah, for the faint spirit shall become a mantle of praise enunciated by otherworldly unction.

Still failing to settle the right syntax for client ZX3820. Not for lack of sample form letters provided during orientation, but because not a single one fits. Refusing the forms as inadequate. Aristotle refusing Plato’s theory of the forms–if the father of all philosophical footnotes had one single one anyhow. Failed to figure how this world holds order also not only other-world Forms. Some semblance of home here. My father has many dwellings. Not is only in heaven but as it is, otherwise why the comparison? Client ZX3820—you enter the numbers and the computer program inserts a name which you, the staff, are unable to see, privacy—wants foundation. A shade of peach, non-scented, but can get it cheaper at even the convenience store. He heard now-departed father say have your convenience and hang all to not-yet-widowed mother when she suggested they purchase an eighty dollar keychain by which the doors would unlock and lock by your remote finger’s command. Garrett straightened his spine, felt a click or crack at the base of his back, wrote Have your convenience and hang it all as a draft, then deleted it posthaste, else that $2,500 departs like nymphs leaving you in the wasteland again, leaving no address for anyone, The yellow fog of debt that that rubs its back upon the window-panes, collectors licking their tongues into the corners of the everything.

The nymphs are departed,
And their friends, the loitering heirs of city directors;
Departed, have left no addresses

Departed, have taken with them the luggage of panic, for if deadened from dull days at work at least there no worried pacings punctuate the evenings as in the elder days, before this big break job, no heart kicks at every door knock as though Loan Co. Himself was on the other side, knocking. Dithyrambic pound with each envelope delivered, even sweepstakes nonsense sometimes looked like loan bills to bloodshot eyes. Taking more hours at the cafe, more coffee cups filled and customers humored over steaming pink salmon, seizing on others’ sick days almost as a parasite and still failing in spite of this to meet monthly payments, readying for default until an entirely oblique conversation with Loan Co. led to a letter that read “ . . . pleased to inform you that your loan has been rescheduled,” which meant, his Uncle James told him over the phone, reduced monthly payments by means of a second loan to help pay off the first which meant increased interest rates but extended repayment schedule so that at least the monthly interest and a bit of the capital balance would be in the hands of the bank every thirty days.

Two Very Short Poems About the Scottish Englightenment

David Hume Recalls Charles Boyle
I speired him thareanent heiven, for a wee
bairn I was, dumfoondered at his orrery.

Moral Sentiments, Imaginary Beings
Adam Smith learned from François Quesnay
that if laissez faire et laissez passer,
le monde va de lui meme!
An Invisible Hand to favor
industry and more productive labor,
with an Impartial Spectator to fairly examine
our pursuit of even more mammon.

Claire Carlisle on the Paradoxes and Perplexities of Kierkegaard

In fishing about for a topic for this upcoming Percy conference, I’ve been reading some Kierkegaard again, or rather one of Kierkegaard’s very best commentators, Claire Carlisle. Here’s a great passage from her Guide for the Perplexed, which I think is just excellent as a précis of Kierkegaard’s entire work.

One of the interesting—and also potentially confusing—features of Kierkegaard’s interpretation of truth is the way it encompasses both a philosophical notion of knowledge and a theological notion of salvation. In the context of Christianity, the correspondence between truth and salvation can be summed up by Jesus’s words, “I am the way, the truth and the life”, which suggest that truth and the way to salvation (or eternal life) are one and the same thing. This is the kind of truth that Kierkegaard is interested in: not just the truth that Jesus embodies, but that which is required of all those who, in following Jesus, have embarked on the task of becoming Christians and are seeking salvation. As a philosopher, Kierkegaard wants to present an accurate expression of this truth of Christianity. This is very much what Hegel had already tried to do, but Kierkegaard felt that Hegel had falsified Christianity by attempting to incorporate it into a philosophical system.

Kierkegaard highlights an opposition between the truth of Christianity and the truth of philosophy, and this means that in order to say what it means to be a Christian he creates, rather paradoxically, and anti-philosophical philosophy. To put it another way—which seems a little less paradoxical—Kierkegaard offers a philosophy of a way of life that cannot, he argues, be rationalized.

Claire Carlisle, Kierkegaard: A Guide for the Perplexed

Articulus 2

Videtur quod Deum esse non sit demonstrabile. Deum enim esse est articulus fidei. Sed ea quae sunt fidei, non sunt demonstrabilia, quia demonstratio facit scire, fides autem de non apparentibus est, ut patet per apostolum, ad Hebr. XI. Ergo Deum esse non est demonstrabile.

It seems that the existence of God cannot be demonstrated. For it is an article of faith that God exists. But what is of faith cannot be demonstrated, because a demonstration produces scientific knowledge; whereas faith is of the unseen (Hebrews 11:1). Therefore it cannot be demonstrated that God exists.

Read the rest here.

And here.

On Whether or Not Animals Go to Heaven, David Bentley Hart on Thomists, and Edward Feser on the Soul

Dog Heaven

Somewhat related to Rufus’ Field Notes and my own reference to two articles on Mind and Brain below, there has been an interesting debate of late about whether animals go to heaven. In case you missed it, David Bentley Hart wrote his monthly article in First Things about it, and began with an extended riff comparing Thomists to … beatniks.

I was once told by a young, ardently earnest Thomist … you know, one of those manualist neo-paleo-neo-Thomists of the baroque persuasion you run across ever more frequently these days, gathered in the murkier corners of coffee bars around candles in wine bottles, clad in black turtlenecks and berets, sipping espresso, smoking Gauloises, swaying to bebop, composing dithyrambic encomia to that ­absolutely gone, totally wild, starry-bright and vision-wracked, mad angelic daddy-cat Garrigou-Lagrange. . . .

Weird. And I like Garrigou-Lagrange, at least Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought, which is one of the first books I read in Kindle form (“Kindle form” because I actually read it on my phone).

Luckily, there’s always Ed Feser to rely on. Feser posted his response to Hart at the Public Discourse, and it’s well worth reading.

Hart is correct to note that Thomists deny that there will be non-human animals in Heaven. But he gives the impression that Thomists “reject all evidence of intentionality . . . or affection in animals,” and that they are committed to a “mechanistic” account of non-human animals according to which their apparently conscious behavior reduces to “biomechanical stimulus and response.” He insinuates that at least many Thomists maintain an “unsettlingly gnostic picture” of human nature on which “the vegetal, animal, and rational functions of the soul must be segregated into strictly impermeable compartments,” so that the human soul becomes a “Cartesian ghost” inhabiting the physical body.

None of this could be further from the truth. As with his critique of natural law two years ago, Hart’s latest anti-Thomistic salvo is a showy exercise in firing blanks, all shock and no awe. Hart’s piece is long on rhetoric and short on argumentation, riddled with sweeping assertions, attacks on straw men, and failures to make crucial distinctions. The reason why Thomists tend to deny that non-human animals go to heaven has nothing to do with those attributed by Hart. Let’s untangle the mess.

Good stuff, and worth reading even as an introduction to the Thomist view of the nature of human souls. Feser is hard enough on Hart that I doubt Hart himself will be persuaded, but he ought to be.

Two Articles on Mind and Brain

Recently a number of related items have popped up, almost at random, that are somewhat related to Rufus’ Field Notes. The first two were articles sent to me by my Uncle: one by Michael S. A. Graziano, a professor of neuroscience at Princeton and the author of the (truly excellent) novel, Love Song of Monkey. In the article, Graziano writes:

[What] is the relationship between our minds and the physical world? Here, we don’t have a settled answer. We know something about the body and brain, but what about the subjective life inside? Consider that a computer, if hooked up to a camera, can process information about the wavelength of light and determine that grass is green. But we humans also experience the greenness. We have an awareness of information we process. What is this mysterious aspect of ourselves?

Many theories have been proposed, but none has passed scientific muster. I believe a major change in our perspective on consciousness may be necessary, a shift from a credulous and egocentric viewpoint to a skeptical and slightly disconcerting one: namely, that we don’t actually have inner feelings in the way most of us think we do.

The entire article is worth reading, as are Graziano’s books God Soul Mind Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Reflections on the Spirit World and Consciousness and the Social Brain (probably—I’m guessing on this one, as I haven’t actually read this one yet). In the article and the first book Graziano makes his case for an account of the mind that reckons it in entirely materialist terms. Philosophically this is called eliminative materialism, and while the science is certainly new, the big idea has been around at least since Democritus and Leucippus.

I won’t quote the entire article by Graziano, but I will quote my response to my Uncle:

In ​one of​​ ​his books about neuroscience, he has proposed a theory of consciousness that is intriguing—namely, that consciousness evolved when hominids took their already highly developed social skills (think​ ​of ​monkeys grooming each other, or chattering on the brink of speech) and as individuals then turned these skills “inward”. I don’t know if he’s right or wrong, but it’s an interesting theory.

He doesn’t go into that in the article, but I find that more compelling than his idea about brain-as-information-processing machine. An idea that is pretty worn out, it seems to me, as people have been making that analogy for decades now. It seems to me that Graziano has simply taken the analogy seriously, which is to say he takes the computer as a model for the brain/mind, when of course it is the brain/mind ​(or some of its properties, such as the ability to perform mathematical computations) ​that has historically been a model for the computer.

​This unfortunately seems to me an example of the “cartoonish reconstruction of attention” of which he speaks.​ Not that I think he’s wrong about there being cartoonish awareness, but aren’t some instances of awareness more accurate (less cartoonish) than others?

While Graziano is an excellent novelist and, as near as I can tell, an excellent scientist, in this article ​he makes statements that are half-truths at best.

For example, he writes that Copernicus showed us that “we’re a speck in a large space”, ​and of course this is true as far as it goes, but what of the fact that in that large space, ours is the only planet that supports any kind of life, let alone intelligent life? Of course we may find that we are not alone in the universe, but then what would that mean, exactly? Our planet wouldn’t be unique, strictly speaking, but would that mean that our planet and planet #2 were really less marvelous for supporting life? Of course not, and I doubt Graziano would even claim that. So what exactly is he arguing against? The existence of God? Why?

​Likewise for his second great scientific insight, that “we’re a twig on the tree of evolution”. Just another twig? I doubt Graziano really believes this​. One twig on a tree is much like any other twig, which really isn’t all that different from bigger limbs or even a tree trunk or a tree’s roots. But Graziano is one of the only kind of primate to study other primates. It may turn out that Graziano and the rest of the human race evolve into beings that are as different from us as we are from non-rational animals, or as animals are from vegetable life, or as vegetable life is from inorganic matter, but this remains to be seen. But to say that the most complex organism produced yet by evolution is just another twig strikes me as betrayal of Darwin’s theory rather than a supporting analogy.

Like the philosophers Dennet and Churchland he refers to, Graziano’s philosophy of mind seems to be eliminativist materialism, which seems to me to be ultimately incoherent. Going back to Graziano’s analogy, he’s eliminated any idea of truth except whatever he calls “science”, which seems to me to postpone any and all truth to the claims of some future science. How can he claim that “wavelength is a real, physical phenomenon; color is the brain’s approximate, slightly incorrect model of it​” without relying on “awareness”? How does he know that one “complex bundle of information” is a caricature and another is not?

We know that some things are true and some things are not true, and we know this now. Certainly it is very difficult to prove that anything is true, but somehow that doesn’t stop us from knowing some things are true (not just believing some things are true). Science comes from the Latin “scire”, to know, and ought to include ways of knowing other than mathematics and reasoning with tools. It ought to include reasoning in such areas of philosophy as metaphysics, since arguments for the truth are always built on assumptions of some kind or another, and proponents of any argument need to be able to examine their assumptions.

The other article my Uncle sent to me is by Lawrence Berger, Being There: Heidegger on Why Our Presence Matters, itself a response to the Graziano article linked above. Berger begins:

A cognitive scientist and a German philosopher walk into the woods and come upon a tree in bloom: What does each one see? And why does it matter?

While that may sound like the set-up to a joke making the rounds at a philosophy conference, I pose it here sincerely, as a way to explore the implications of two distinct strains of thought — that of cognitive science and that of phenomenology, in particular, the thought of Martin Heidegger, who offers a most compelling vision of the ultimate significance of our being here, and what it means to be fully human.

In the article, Berger offers a pretty good criticism of the Cartesian view of matter (“The prevailing view is that the universe consists of discrete entities that are ultimately related by physical laws”) and proposes instead that “Heidegger, on the other hand, offers a holistic view of all that is. We belong here together with the trees and the stones, for we are made manifest together. Rather than being discrete entities, the relation comes first, and the extent to which we are related matters for what we and the stone ultimately are.”

I think this is fine as far as it goes, but I’m not so sure Berger or Heidegger get to what we and the stone ultimately are, if only because I don’t think the story ends with just we and the stone.

As I wrote to my uncle:

I’m not sure the difficulty with Heidegger is your problem alone. I think he (and his explicator Berger) leave some things out, without being as clear as Graziano. For example, it seems obvious that it’s easier to talk to somebody who is actually listening, but isn’t clear how “the same general principle applies to a purely physical object such as a stone,” or exactly how “the manner in which such an object is made manifest can be affected by the quality of my presence.” Unless he means something vacuous like my throwing it means that it will move, or (maybe a little less vacuous) that I can use it along with other stones to build a wall.

And Heidegger is notoriously murky, not just in the way he expresses things, but in what he is trying to express. For example, which is “more primordial”: being or time? What is the difference between some thing and the being of some thing? What is the difference between the being of some thing and the being of all things?

It isn’t clear to me that Heidegger makes any headway in answering these questions. The questions themselves have become interesting to me, but I’m not sure there are answers to these questions, or that there is even a way to answer these questions.”

Unless we go back into the history of philosophy and find out why Heidegger formulated these questions in the way he did, and if perhaps that might shed light on why the questions have meaning as ultimate questions, though perhaps unanswerable, or if rather they lead to a philosophical cul-de-sac.

I suspect the latter, but the place to go is Reduction and Givenness by Jean-Luc Marion, who reveals how much Heidegger’s ontological investigation owe to his teacher Husserl’s phenomenological investigations.

Tractatus at a Benedictine Monastery Near Huttledorf: A Propositional Sonnet with Phenomenal Lemma

brother rabbit duck

         But primordial life, wild life striving to erupt into the open – that is lacking.

The world is everything that is the case.
    So garden shears will comprehend the axe.
    I bend at first, then kneel to ask this rose
What case exists as mere atomic facts.
    I feel the soil. The sun is kind to beat
    Upon my backside – meaning what it meant:
The logical picture of facts is thought,
And thought’s proposition, significant.
    Do roots thus know the bloom? Does eye thus see
    Itself? Does work thus play like rose with worm ?
All basic functions of veracity
Can pattern truth to serve the general form:
        Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must
        Be silent: worm to rose and light from dust.

Hard Questions


In the comments to the previous post, Duffer asks some hard questions of writers and maybe a few readers of Korrektiv.

Can we please get over Walker Percy? How many Walker Percy conferences must one attend in a lifetime?

As for myself, I can only say to the first, “Not yet, I guess”, and to the second, “Well, three anyway. Three and a half, if we count the opening of the WPC back in 2010 (or thereabouts).

Not that I haven’t tried. There was that decade reading the classics of Greek and Latin literature, not to mention a number of extended trips to such exotic locales as Zembla and McLean Hospital (in search of the ghosts of Vladimir Nabokov and Robert Lowell, respectively). But for reasons I can’t quite fathom, I always find myself back with other dissenters from the dissent, in the scrambled geography of Feliciana Parish.

For instance, I’ve just started reading The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, author of the Steve Jobs biography and a former editor at Time. Isaacson himself explains the Percy connection here, and I suppose that’s one of the things that sparked my interest in the book. It’s pretty great so far, beginning with a chapter on Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron and something of prophet of modern computers. A prophet and, as she herself would have it, a poet.

Her reengagement with math, she told her mother, spurred her creativity and led to an “immense development of imagination, so much so that I feel no doubt if I continue my studies I shall in due time be a Poet.” The whole concept of imagination, especially as it was applied to technology, intrigued her. “What is imagination?” she asked in an 1841 essay. “It is the Combining faculty. It brings together things, facts, ideas, conceptions in new, original, endless, ever-varying combinations….It is that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science.” The Innovators, p18

This sounded awfully familiar to me. Where had I read this before? Oh, yes, of course … Percy wrote something similar to this in his last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome.

Little things can be important. Even more important is the ability——call it knack, hunch, providence, good luck, whatever——to know what you are looking for and put two and two together. A great scientist once said that genius consists not in making great discoveries but in seeing the connection between small discoveries. The Thanatos Syndrome, p3

Could that “great scientist” have been Ada Lovelace? Probably not, but the connection here is intriguing (to me, anyway). Ada Lovelace has an insight into the relationship between imagination and science in the early 19th century. Percy makes a comment based on a similar idea in a novel in 1987, by which time we might suppose Lovelace’s insight to be more commonplace——possibly picked up on by other mathematicians and scientists, some of whom Percy might have read.

But maybe an actual connection isn’t all that intriguing. Maybe it’s just true, or even a capital T Truth, but a Truth so general that anyone could make it, at almost any time. Causality and contingency be damned, maybe connections just are——between some things and other things, between people, between ideas, between propositions, between people and ideas and propositions … between anything and everything, so much so that I suppose there’s a possibility that in the end, none of it is much more than mildly interesting. Maybe it isn’t interesting at all.

But connections can take on a seemingly divine importance, as I was trying to get at in that poem last week, or as Catholics might more readily understand as the basis of the laying on of hands——we think, or at least hope that the Holy Spirit is guiding our way through these connections. Those we recognize, and probably many more that we don’t. Dash that “seemingly”!

Anyway, that’s one reason I can’t get over Walker Percy.

Pascal & Pascal Caricatured

I liked this, from Professor James Franklin:

Pascal caricatured:
Being base and greedy, we want lots of goodies in this life and, if possible, the next. So we are prepared to give up some pleasures now, on the off chance of a lot more later, if our eye to the main chancemakes it look worth our while. Since the loot on offer is infinite, even a smallchance of raking it in makes it worth a try to grovel to any deity that might do what we want.

What Pascal said:
You have to choose whether to accept religion. Think of itas a coin toss, where you don’t know the outcome. In this case, if you lose –there’s no God – you have not lost much. But if you win, there is an infinitepayoff. So, you should go to Mass, and pray for faith.

To be considered in light of mathematical exactitude rather than Catholic stridency, if that helps.