Voltaire on being a public intellectual

I’ve been obsessing about Voltaire recently. I’m interested in the public sphere as a space within which rational progress happens, and I think Voltaire had some interesting insights into the idea of a public discourse before we’d even defined what we mean properly by this term.

As a youth, Voltaire set out to become a “man of letters”. In his time that would be something similar to what we now refer to as a “public intellectual”. In Diderot’s Encyclopedie, in an article titled Gens de lettres, Voltaire defines what a man of letters is (Voltaire says ‘man’ but, of course, what we mean here is a ‘person of letters’). It’s an individual possessing a grasp of grammar, geometry, history, philosophy, poetry, etc. That is, to truly be that kind of intellectual one needs to have certain knowledge of the world that is general enough to be able to engage with issues at an adequate level. Kant called this ‘pragmatic’ anthropology – the knowledge we need to have of the world, and of humanity’s place in the world, that enables us to participate in the world to the fullest extent.

Voltaire was sceptical about the possibility of something like this being possible any more. He wrote that “[u]niversal science is no longer within the reach of man: but true men of letters make incursions into these different terrains, even if they cannot cultivate them all.”

We now know much more than we did in Voltaire’s time. And so the task is greater. I agree with Voltaire that there is a necessity of a grasp of a wide range of knowledge, but what exactly is relevant knowledge here? At which point is the condition of knowledge met for one to be able to participate in the discourse?

We can keep reading, but the most important thing is to know when to start writing. The rest will surely follow.

Information Diet

While I have a distaste for new year celebrations, I see a lot of value in a periodic review of certain habits. One habit that needs to be reviewed a lot is what I call my information diet. That is, the sources of news and other stuff that bring me information.

The two main things I use are Feedly for RSS feeds and Pocket Casts for podcasts. I also subscribe to several newsletters to feed me things that RSS feeds wont. Usually things other people read. I also go on Reddit, but it’s a dark place and usually a waste of time.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, at all times I have several database searches set up to work with whatever I’m researching/studying at the time to keep me up to date with the latest literature in my field (enlightenment philosophy – for now).

I thought of writing up a list of everything I get, but I daunted by that task, I gave up. Instead, here is an all too brief, non-specific list of things I like to keep updated on:

The list is quite long beyond this, but these are the websites that I care the most about.
I cut podcasts down significantly, but here’s a brief list of what I like most still:

  • XLR8R Podcast
  • Resident Advisor Podcast
  • In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg
  • Philosophy Can Ruin Your Life
  • Philosophy Bites
  • Bleep Podcast

There are a number of ambient music podcasts that I like, but they seem to have stopped updating.

Information is addictive. And time consuming. The important thing, something I’m still always grappling with, is the balance one must find between this information diet and writing. I always feel like I don’t write enough. But I always write.


Gramsci Hated New Year’s Day

I often feel New Years Eve and New Year’s Day are disappointing. This year I longed for little more than to go to sleep early on December 31st and to rise early on January 1st and continue working on my thesis, and on other projects.

In this article from 1916 (neatly published exactly 100 years ago) Gramsci puts this sentiment best:

I would like every hour of my life to be new, though connected to the ones that have passed. No day of celebration with its mandatory collective rhythms, to share with all the strangers I don’t care about. Because our grandfathers’ grandfathers, and so on, celebrated, we too should feel the urge to celebrate. That is nauseating.

History continues today as it did yesterday. This is not a new year. It’s just another year. Every moment is new, and should be treated accordingly. As philosopher Dennis Schmidt put it in a talk I once heard, “we are now older, but we aren’t closer to death. Death is always just a step away”. I think Gramsci would agree. Add that as another reason to have a distaste for this celebration.

Umberto Eco’s Advice for Compiling a Research Bibliography

umberto ecoI’ve been in a bit of a rut with my own research lately. It was nothing devastating (though it certainly seemed so at the time), but it showed me the necessity of stepping back and re-evaluating and re-thinking a big chunk of my thesis. This prompted me to further go back and reach for Umberto Eco’s How to Write A Thesis. Over the next few days I’ll write up some of the things I find most interesting as I get through this text. So far it’s a trove of useful advice!

Today I’ll start with his advice for beginning a working bibliography. I’ve expanded on it a little bit, including both what I’ve learned works for me, but also what I think would be acceptable given more modern research methods (in humanities). Most of this is in Chapter 3 of the book.

  1. Start with a preliminary search of the library catalogue. Don’t just search for the exact research topic you’re interested in, but also surrounding ideas and concepts.
  2. Once you have a number of sources, skim through the relevant chapters/sections and copy down their bibliographies (be exact and complete).
  3. Cross-check these with some general reference works on the topic to see which works are cited most often. This will help establish a preliminary hierarchy and give priority to the readings.
  4. Write down the full bibliographical details for each source on a separate index card (Endnote or Mendelay will do that these days).
  5. To avoid duplicating sources, organise them alphabetically by author’s name. These days Endnote or Mendeley will do such things automatically. A spreadsheet will also do nicely.
  6. Annotate this bibliography with details of where to find the text (i.e. what library if you search in multiple places) and its call number at the library.
  7. Once complete, the bibliography should be organised according to the hierarchy. That is, must-read and important texts should be flagged somehow (something Endnote and Mendeley will excel at – you can just chuck a bunch of references into their own folder) and given priority.

I really love this approach to building a bibliography, and I really love the idea of building an index card library, like Eco suggests. Even if it isn’t entirely practical, there is something romantic about it. My own approach is to build a working bibliography as I go along in Endnote. I’m horrified that I’ll accidentally delete the file one day though. But then, I’ve got ten backups.

Current Reading

Ben Learner’s 10:04, Alison Ross’s The Aesthetic Paths of Philosophy, Jennifer Mensch’s Kant’s Organicism. Particularly excited about the latter of these, something like a third of the book is footnotes and extra material. I’d be pleased to write a review of it, if someone wanted to publish it.

Updating the site

I’ll be updating the website a lot soon. Keep an eye out for stuff! I’ll post a thing over the weekend.