It’s been a busy week, so I have a super long queue of things to read waiting for me, so I imagine next week’s transmission might be much longer. This week the best thing I read was Richard Flanagan’s extraordinary address to the National Press Club republished at the Guardian //
I also recommend every one of the things below.
Paul J. Griffiths on how to be an intellectual at First Things // Ben Roth is Against Readability at the Millions // Dan Chiasson on the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the New Yorker // Hope Reese interviews Michelle Dean on literary criticism by women at Jstor Daily // A pretty neat looking computer game version of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden // Justin Richards on walking in Epoché Magazine //
Julie Sedivy on whether mind-wandering is bad for you at Nautilus // A neat collection of cool homes at the Atlantic // Jaz Hee-jeong Choi on how we can adapt society to loneliness at the Conversation // Richard Marshall reviews Mitchell Merback’s Perfection’s Therapy at 3:AM Magazine // A very cool interview with Peter Adamson on the APA Blog // Henry David Thoreau’s Walden as a computer game //
I read a lot online, as we all do. I thought it might be helpful to offer up a digest of some of the most interesting things I’d found over the last week. I’ll aim to publish these on Sunday mornings, to provide some nourishment for the mind at the end of the week. Mind you, not all of these are published in the last week – it’s rather a list of thing I’d read in the last week that you too might enjoy.
I’m also quite keen to expand the net I use to catch things to read. If you have a hot tip, definitely leave it in the comments.
Evan Smith on How to survive in the humanities without permanency on the AHA ECR Blog // Tom McCarthy reviews Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow in audiobook format read by George Guidall at The New York times // Peter Adamson on medicine in the ancient world at Philosophy Now // A cool interview with Brandon Terry and Tommie Shelby about their new edited book on King’s political philosophy at Jacobin // Jessica Roberson on the dismissal of the quality of literary work by women at the JSTOR Blog //
I know I don’t post here as much as I should, or even as much as I’d like to. I hope to change that – and what better opportunity than International Women’s Day?
There are so many wonderful books on the history of philosophy written by women, that any attempt at writing an exhaustive list is beyond my capacities on a Thursday afternoon. Instead, I thought I’d keep my list to philosophers currently working in the history of philosophy, and in particular those whose texts I’d read or re-read relatively recently – so these are all books that are somewhat fresh on my mind, or which had a big impact on the course of my own PhD studies in some way. I couldn’t pick a favourite, so the list is in no particular order.
1. Genevieve Lloyd – The Man of Reason
I don’t know if Lloyd’s book should count as a “history of philosophy” book – the point it makes is very meta-philosophical. It is however one of the formative texts for my approach to the history of philosophy, and it gives us an important reminder of the way our conceptions of gender have shaped our thoughts.
2. Jacqueline Broad – Women Philosophers of the Seventeenth Century
This book introduced me to a several figures I’m now working on, and is brilliantly clear and lucid in presenting and contextualising these womens’ ideas.
3. Lilli Alanen – Descartes’ Concept of the Mind
There is a longstanding caricature of Descartes that analytic philosophers of mind like to bring out in week one of survey courses on their topic to pose him as a boogeyman who had terrible ideas. Alanen is a strong and powerful opponent of that caricature, and this book is an excellent study of Descartes’ philosophy of mind.
4. Susan James – Passion and Action
This is the single best book on early modern philosophical theories of the passions. It’s so good that it’s worth reading and rereading frequently to catch all of the nuance.
5. Catherine Wilson – Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity
This was one of those books that shifted completely the course of my education. I got it somewhat on a whim – my, then, honours supervisor was reading it and said it was good. I bought it, because he seemed a good model to emulate. Wilson’s philosophical prose set a new standard for what I expect of myself in terms of detail, clarity and persuasiveness. And frankly, it’s just a really great topic.
Pliny the Younger was a prominent statesman in Rome in the early days of the Roman Empire (during the so-called “Silver Age” of the Empire). Today, he’s probably best known for his published correspondence. They are literary in style, and organised according to the order “they came to hand” (I.1).
Pliny was definitely a kindred spirit to those of us who value literature and art. In his letters he praises Rome for allowing the arts to flourish, while at the same time chastising people from not adequately taking note of the genius of the writers living in their city.
The best letter, however, is one he wrote to a man named Septicius Clarus, a prefect of the Praetorian Guard, and friend to Suetonius. Clarus, evidently, accepted a dinner invitation and then didn’t show up:
Who are you, to accept my invitation to dinner and never come? Here’s your sentence and you shall pay my costs in full, no small sum either. It was all laid out, one lettuce each, three snails, two eggs, barley-cake, and wine with honey chilled with snow (you will reckon this too please, and as an expensive item, seeing that it disappears in the dish), besides olives, beetroots, gherkins, onions, and any number of similar delicacies. You would have heard a comic play, a reader or singer, or all three if I felt generous. Instead you chose to go where you could have oysters, sow’s innards, sea-urchins, and Spanish dancing-girls. You will suffer for this – I won’t say how. It was a cruel trick done to spite one of us – yourself or most likely me, and possibly both of us, if you think what a feast of fun, laughter and learning we were going to have. You can eat richer food at many houses, but nowhere with such free and easy enjoyment. All I can say is, try me; and then, if you don’t prefer to decline invitations elsewhere, you can always make excuses to me. (I.15)
Is he overreacting? Perhaps slightly. But who of us hasn’t felt those same sentiments when dealing with a thoughtless friend?
The extract is taken from the 1969 edition of The Letters of the Younger Pliny, trans. Betty Radice. Penguin Books, London.
One of the reasons for which I love the history of philosophy is the trivia that comes with it. This isn’t to say that there aren’t interesting and weird facts to know about contemporary figures in philosophy. But the facts about historical figures are just, I don’t know, weirder?
Today I want to share an interesting factoid about Descartes and three dreams that changed the course of his life. According to him, the night of November 10th to 11th, 1619 was the most significant night of his life. The three dreams he had that night supposedly provided him with the purpose and drive that he needed to usher in the modern era of philosophy.
Sadly, most of Descartes’s own notes about these dreams didn’t survive . Thankfully Adrien Billet, a 17th Century biographer of Descartes’s, has preserved an account of them in his La vie de M. Descartes , and below I’m able to give you a glimpse of what he experienced that was so vivid as to change the course of a then, twenty three year old Frenchman’s life.
According to Descartes, there were three dreams. However, I think we can argue that one was actually an auditory hallucination, and I’ll explain why shortly. Let me start with the first dream, which Billet retells as follows:
After going to sleep, [Descartes’s] imagination was struck by the appearance of some phantoms who appeared to him and who frightened him so much, that thinking he was walking through the streets, he was forced to turn over on his left side in order to get to the place he wanted to go, because he felt a great weakness on his right.
This dream in itself doesn’t seem to be particularly interesting. The details we have of it are quite vague, though they seem sufficient to say simply that it was particularly vivid.
The second dream begins after Descartes rolls over.
Immediately he had a new dream in which he believed he heard a sharp and shattering noise, which he took for a clap of thunder. The fright it gave him woke him directly, and after opening his eyes, he perceived many sparkling lights scattered about the room. The same thing had often happened to him at other times and it was not very unusual for him, when he awoke in the middle of the night, to have his eyes clear enough to catch a glimpse of the objects closest to him.
There are some good reasons to think this wasn’t so much a dream, but an auditory hallucination called Exploding Head Syndrome. According to the linked wikipedia article, it is “a benign condition in which a person hears loud imagined noises or experiences an explosive feeling when falling asleep or waking up.” Prima facie this seems to fit neatly with Descartes’s description. It is classified as a “parasomnia”, that is, a type of disorder involving, among other things, abnormal movements, behaviours, emotions or perceptions, and typically occurs while falling asleep, sleeping, between sleep stages and when waking. Interestingly, the symptoms can coincide with seeing flashes of light – another thing Descartes describes. Unfortunately the Wikipedia page doesn’t mention anything about EHS being associated with vivid or lucid dreams, or anything of that sort. Nonetheless, I think that even based on the scant evidence we have, this “second dream” was actually an instance of this phenomenon.
The third dream seems to be the most significant to me, and perhaps the turbulence caused by the loud noise our protagonist heard and interpreted as his second dream helped lend significance to this dream.
In this last dream [Descartes] found a book on his table, without knowing who had put it there. He opened it, and seeing that it was an encyclopaedia (Dictionnaire), he was delighted, hoping that it could be of great use to him. At the same instant he felt under his hand another book, equally new to him, without knowing where it had come from. He found that it was an anthology of poems by different authors called the Corpus Poetarum. He was drawn by the desire to read something in it and on opening the verse,
“Quod vitae sectabor iter?” [What path of life shall I pursue?]
At the same moment he became aware of a man he did not know, who hands him a piece of poetry, beginning with Est & Non, and who praised it to him as an excellent composition. (…) He had not finished before he saw the book reappear on the other end of the table. But he found that the encyclopaedia was no longer complete as it had appeared the first time. Meanwhile, he went on to the poems of Ausonius, in the anthology of poetry through which he was leafing, and unable to find the poem which begins Est & Non, he said to the man that he knew another by the same poet which was even more beautiful than this one, and that it began Quod vitae sectabor iter? The man asked him to show it to him, and M. Descartes set about to look for it, when he came upon several copperplate engravings (graves en taille douce) of small portraits.
Before he awoke, Descartes wondered if it was a dream or a vision, ultimately deciding it was the former, and even interpreting it to himself while asleep (!).
He decided that the encyclopedia meant nothing other than all the branches of learning brought together, and that the anthology of poems, called the Corpus Poetarum, indicated in particular and in a most precise fashion Philosophy and Wisdom joined together. Indeed, he did not believe that one should be so very astonished to see that the poets, even those who write nothing but twaddle, were full of sayings more serious, more sensible, and better expressed than those found in the writings of the philosophers (…) M.Descartes continued to interpret his dream in his sleep,judging that the poem on the uncertainty of the type of life one should choose, which begins by Quod vitae sectabor iter?, indicated the good advice of a wise person, or even Moral Theology (…)
By the poets collected in the anthology he understood the Revelation and the Inspiration by which he did not despair of seeing himself favored. By the poem Est & Non, which is the Yes and the No of Pythagoras, he understood Truth and Falsity in human understanding and profane learning. Seeing that the application of all these things succeeded in suiting him so satisfactorily, he was bold enough to conclude that the Spirit of Truth had chosen to use this dream to reveal the treasures of all the disciplines of learning to him (…)
This last dream, which contained nothing but the most pleasant and agreeable things, seemed to him to indicate the future, and it was limited to those things which should happen to him in the remainder of his life. But he took the two earlier dreams as warnings concerning his past life, which might not have been as innocent in the eyes of God as it was to men. And he believed that this was the reason for the terror and fright which accompanied these two dreams.
I quote the text at length here, because I think Descartes’ own interpretation speaks quite well of the significance of the dreams he had. What strikes me as particularly interesting is that he interpreted the dream as putting him on a search for truth and distinguishing it from falsity, which foreshadows his greatest achievement in philosophy, the Meditations.
There is a further blip in these dreams make later on. The French jurist and historian, Maxime Leroy, when writing a book on Descartes sent a summary of these dreams to Freud, asking him to analyse them. The father of psychoanalysis obliged, and his response is in vol. XXI of the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Unfortunately, I don’t think I have institutional access to the web version, and my university’s main library which houses the works of Freud is sadly (but also, very happily!) being refurbished, and I won’t be able to get my hands on it for another two weeks.
 What is left of them, is in French in Ouvres de Descartes ed. Charles Adam and Paul Tannery, vol X.
 I cite here at length the translation of Billet’s text found in John Benton’s translation. Benton, J. (1980) “Descartes’ Olympica”, Philosophy and Literature, vol.4 (2), pp. 163-166. In my excerpts I attempt to avoid as much as possible Billet’s own additions and instead focus on the account of the dreams themselves.