Conference Time

I’ve been very quiet on the blog over the last two weeks because I’ve been busy with a few conferences. I gave talks at the Australasian Seminar for Early Modern Philosophy (ASEMP) and the Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy (ASCP) conferences.

I’m lucky enough to have been able to go to these conferences pretty regularly (well, there have only been two ASEMP meetings so far…), and I consider both to be pretty central parts of my calendar.

ASEMP is a very productive conference for me because it draws the attention of many scholars of early modern philosophy who are able to give me really good feedback on my work, and who are very supportive of my project overall.

My talk was titled Margaret Cavendish and the Cartesian Passions. Despite some rather frustrating technical issues with my slides – I managed to crash the computer I was projecting them from – the talk was well received. I got some good discussion at the end, and nobody pointed out any obvious problems with my ideas which is always a plus.

The highlight of the conference, as it is with every conference I go to, is seeing all of my philosophy friends who live far away (being a historian of philosophy in my department is lonely business in terms of having other historians to talk to). I’m fortunate that my supervisor has introduced me to a number of her colleagues and collaborators, who are all super supportive of my work, and having the ability to meet and hang out with so many philosophers whose work I admire is super fun every time.

ASCP was a very productive conference for different reasons, that I can’t say too much about. The ASCP is a very pluralistic group, and while ostentatiously their focus is continental philosophy, the term itself is rather meaningless these days. And while the conference prioritises and draws a great number of researchers whose work is informed by 20th and 21st century European philosophy, they also attract a good number of scholars working in non-European traditions and in the history of philosophy.

My talk here was titled, Walter Charleton and the Cartesian Passions. I had a very good audience, and this time no technical issues. The discussion afterward was very productive and opened up some possibilities for collaboration, which I hope end up happening. For now, I can’t say much.

These two conferences were a bit bitter-sweet for me. I currently have just over seven months of funding left. After that, it’s hard to say when I’ll be able to speak anywhere else. I guess that’s some motivation to keep hustling.

A few excerpts from Malebranche’s *the Search After Truth*

The current chapter I’m writing is focused on Nicolas Malebranche and his English follower John Norris. They’re both a lot of fun to read, but Malebranche in particular has a fun since he doesn’t spare any words to attack those he thinks are not thinking clearly, distracting others from true knowledge, or whose ideas he considers bad.

Portrait of Nicolas Malebranche

So here are a few of the passages I’d enjoyed for reasons other than their scholarly value for my PhD. For a start, here’s Malebranche having a go at the Roman Stoic philosopher, Seneca:

All this shows that few errors are more dangerous, or more easily communicable, than those with which Seneca’s books are filled. For these errors are refined, suited to man’s nature, and similar to that in which the demon engaged our first parents. They are clad in these books with pompous and splendid ornaments, which gain entry for them into most minds. They enter, grasp, stun, and blind them. But they blind them with a proud blindness, a dazzling blindness, a blindness accompanied by glimmering lights, not a humiliating blindness full of shadows that make one aware that one is blind and force one to admit it to others. When one is struck by this proud blindness, one places oneself among the noble and powerful minds. Even others include us in this class and admire us. Thus, nothing is more contagious than this blindness, because the vanity and sensibility of men, the corruption of their senses and passions, dispose them to search after it, to be struck by it, and excite them to impress others with it.

I do not believe then that one can find an author more appropriate than Seneca for exemplifying the nature of this contagion in an infinity of men whom we call noble and powerful minds, and for showing how strong and vigorous imaginations dominate weak and unenlightened minds – not by the strength or evidence of arguments, which are products of the mind – but by the turn and vivid manner of expression, which depend on strength of imagination. (181)

This is just one of many lengthy attacks against the Stoics (and Seneca in particular). But others don’t escape Malebranche’s ire either. Here are two short passages against Michel de Montaigne:

He worked hard to give himself the air of a gentleman, but he did not work to give himself a precise mind, or at least he did not succeed in doing so. And so he became a gentlemanly pedant of quite singular species, rather than a reasonable, judicious, and honest man.

Montaigne’s book contains such obvious proofs of the vanity and pride of its author that it might seem useless to note them here, for one must be quite conceited in order to imagine, as he does, that people would wish to read such a thick book to have some acquaintance with our humors. He must necessarily set himself apart from the common man and regard himself as a quite extraordinary person. (186)

He goes on:

If it is a defect to speak of oneself often, it is an affront, rather a kind of stupidity, to praise oneself all the time as Montaigne does, for this is not only a sin against Christian humility but also an insult to reason. (187)

Part of the text presents an argument against wasting your time with focusing on the wrong kinds of knowledge, since they pollute your mind and take you further away from the kind of knowledge that is really valuable. Among those we should we worry about in particular are some scholars:

The rarest and most ancient histories are the ones that they glory in knowing. They do not know the genealogy of currently reigning princes, but they carefully research those of men who have been dead for four thousand years. They neglect to learn the most common histories of their own time, but they seek a perfect understanding of the fables and fictions of poets. They do not even know their own relatives, but if you wish, they will present many authorities to prove that some Roman citizen was allied with some emperor, or such other things. (297-8)

To be clear, he doesn’t think these things are entirely useless – only if they take us away from those kinds of knowledge that improve us.

Finally though, he thinks we should be weary of those who try to read too much, and read without properly understanding what they read. In particular, I think he’d dislike the kind of requirements contemporary grad students often face. Consider these this short passage for instance:

There are people thirty years of age who quote more evil books for you in their works than they could have read in several centuries, and nevertheless they hope to convince others that they have read them very closely. But most books of certain scholars are fabricated only with the help of dictionaries, and they have hardly read the indexes of the books they quote and some commonplaces gathered together from different authors.

In fairness to grad students, I think this passage is even more an indictment of the poor scholarship presented by some super popular “public intellectuals.”

The Search After Truth is a really rich work, so while I know I’ve picked out some passages that are amusing to me because Malebranche is having a go at someone, I’d not like you to think that the whole book or his way of doing philosophy relies on him being a jerk to other thinkers. In many ways he is trying to synthesise Augustinian and Cartesian philosophy. What he takes from Descartes, in particular, is a kind of moral epistemology. He thinks that if we avoid error in our thinking, we can be closer to the absolute good, that is, to God.

All quotations are from Nicolas Malebranche, 1997, The Search After Truth, trans. and ed. Thomas M. Lennon and Paul J. Olscamp, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Review of Susanna Berger’s *The Art of Philosophy*

Berger - Book Cover

I was tidying up some files in my PhD folder when I found this review I’d written of Susanna Berger’s wonderful book, The Art of Philosophy. Re-reading it now, I think it’s still a neat précis of her book. As I recall, I wrote it for a student-run journal, and by the time I’d written it a new editorial team took over and wasn’t keen any more. I thought I’d share!

Susanna Berger’s The Art of Philosophy is an examination of the tradition of visual representations of philosophy common between the late sixteenth- and early eighteenth centuries. The tradition produced many large-scale tableau representations of entire philosophical systems, with the aim of exhibiting complex ideas in a more accessible form. Her central argument is that such representations, what she calls “plural images”, were not merely instruments for presenting philosophical systems, but that their production in itself was a form of philosophical thought. In so doing, Berger addresses an oft-neglected aspect of the study of early modern philosophy, namely, the visual culture which accompanied it. On her view, such representations formed a visual commentary, which emphasized that they were not just illustrating concepts, but offering in themselves new and enriching additions to philosophical ideas (p.3). As such, by studying the early modern visual depictions of Aristotelian philosophy, on which her book focuses, we can gleam an interesting insight into the way in which the key texts of the 17th century philosophical education were introduced to students. By doing so we can come to gauge their reception with more sensitivity to the context in which they were taken up.

The first chapter of The Art of Philosophy focuses on Siegmund Jacob Apin’s Dissertatio de variis discendi methodis memoria causa inventis earumque usu et abusu (1725). Berger uses Apin’s text to introduce several of the central arguments of her book. Though the treatise itself is unillustrated, it offers a view of a diverse group of didactic and mnemonic images, and it orients the reader towards the idea that visual representations of philosophy could not merely aid the study of the subject, but in themselves be works of philosophy. This chapter argues that the kinds of representation described by Apin were designed to integrate them with the lived activities of the viewer (p.42). In this way, such images could be used to make the acquisition of knowledge easier. This argument is picked up and illustrated in the second chapter by an analysis of several plural images, such as Meurisse and Gaultier’s Artificiosa Totius Logices Descriptio (1614) or Marshall and Meurisse’s An artificiall description of logick (1637).

The third chapter turns away from text embedded within images, to images embedded within text. In this discussion, Berger focuses on images contained within student notebooks, to argue that the ubiquity and variety of pictorial representations of philosophical concepts reveals that such images and the activity of drawing them were an important component of early modern philosophical education and thinking (p.145). Her contention is that these images were not merely used as study aids (as would be the case if these images were merely used to help with committing the material to memory), but that the drawings were crucial in the development of new philosophical ideas.

Berger continues the discussion of student notebooks in the fourth chapter which explores the way in which images in manuscript sources served as tools by which students and scholars could come to grips with difficult theories. One such example is the representation of the Square of Opposition – a diagram used to illustrate simple logical statements and the way they relate to each other (p.148). What emerges from this and the previous chapter is the ubiquity of the use of visual representations as study aims. Students found them useful in clarifying their thinking – and in so doing, showed that these representations were crucial to the way in which their own thinking developed and occurred.

The fifth chapter concludes the book with the argument that visual representations played a double role. That is, that beyond being essential tools for the transmission of knowledge, they also became dominant metaphors for understanding the activities of the mind (p.173). This is to say, that there is a mutually reinforcing relationship between the production of visual representations of knowledge and the production of knowledge.

Finally, the book ought to be praised for its extensive scholarly apparatus, and in particular the two appendices, which catalogue the surviving impressions of philosophical plural images, and offer transcriptions of the text inscribed into them. The Art of Philosophy is a book rich in examples and arguments. Berger shows persuasively that the visual culture arising from philosophy was crucial in the way in which the early moderns thought of the discipline. This book will thus be of interest not just to scholars of early modern visual culture, but also to teachers interested in presenting philosophy in an alternative format. It stands as a significant achievement in scholarship that is both rigorous and accessible.

Beyond my review, you might also want to check out this excerpt adapted from the book – with a tonne of images courtesy of the author!

Malebranche was kind of a dick

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I’m slowly making my way through Malebranche’s magnum opus, The Search After Truth – so far its a super fun text. Malebranche spends a lot of time in the first two major sections on criticising his contemporaries for their lack of clear thinking. This quote is just a small sample – but there are many many others in the first two books of this text. Not long after this passage, he moves on to criticising some prior thinkers: Tertullian, Seneca, and Montaigne. He’s particularly strong worded about Montaigne, of whom he says that “He worked hard to give himself the air of a gentleman, but he did not work to give himself a precise mind, or at least he did not succeed in doing so.” Malebranche is by no means an exception in his harsh words about other thinkers. We see this happen today as well – with some prominent philosophers having a reputation for just how mean they are about others. Personally, I think this sort of adversarial attitude hurts us more than helps.

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Information Diet #002

This week went by quickly, but your morning will go by even quicker if you have a browse of this sweet reading material.

In case you missed it, I posted about Freud psychoanalysing Descartes.

Other great things to read:

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 //


Psychoanalysing Descartes – Freud’s reading of Descartes’ Olympica

A little while ago I wrote on this blog about Descartes’ Olympica dreams. The three dreams he had one night in 1619. The then 23 year old philosopher reported nightmares and dreams which made him decide to become a philosopher. In my previous post I remarked that Freud supposedly interpreted these dreams in a letter, but that the library holding my university’s copy of the Collected Psychological Works of Freud was being renovated, and I had no easy way to access them. Well.. when I went to get vol.21, which contains the letter in question, it wasn’t on the shelf, and it seems that it indeed has been lost or worse! Perhaps some Jungian villain decided to abscond with the tome. I don’t know.

Thankfully a friend was able to deliver the Freud’s letter to Maxime Leroy to me, and so I’m able to relay to you his interpretation of Descartes’ dreams.

Freud begins his letter by saying that usually he’d be reluctant to discuss or analyse dreams when the dreamer is unavailable to comment. This, according to him, is particularly true of historical figures. Presumably, not just because we are unable to confirm with them details that might link them to the real world, but because the real world as they knew no longer exists. With Descartes, however, Freud is happy to report the task is easier than expected. He describes the dreams like so:


Our philosopher’s dreams are what are known as ‘dreams from above’ (Träume von oben). That is to say, they are formulations of ideas which could have been created just as well in a waking state as during the state of sleep, and which have derived their content only in certain parts from mental states at a comparatively deep level. That is why these dreams offer for the most part a content which has an abstract, poetic or symbolic form.

Being “dreams from above”, Freud says, the dreams are a mystery to us, the interpreters, but to the dreamer they are easily decipherable because they are close to our waking thoughts already. And thus,

The philosopher interprets them himself and, in accordance with all the rules for the interpretation of dreams, we must accept his explanation, but it should be added that we have no path open to us which will take us any further.

I think Freud sheds a bit of light on the young Descartes. The idea of becoming a philosopher must always have been close to his thoughts. His education clearly steered him towards a life of contemplation.

Source: Freud’s letter to Maxime Leroy, reprinted in The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol 21

Why Digby probably shouldn’t give cooking advice

Given my ongoing obsession with seventeenth century world, it might come as no surprise to anyone that I’ve started looking to the cookbooks of the era for some recipes I could make myself. After all, I could probably make a convincing case that cooking 17th century recipes is studying. Especially if the author of the cookbook is one of the philosophers relevant to my thesis – Kenelm Digby. His The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digby (year) is a trove of wonderful and bizarre recipes.

For starters, the first 130ish pages of the book comprises recipes for meath and metheglin (both types of mead, if I’m not wrong), various wines, ciders, ales… I think you get the picture. Digby was certainly a fun-time guy as a party host.

What I was looking for, though, was something heartier. Something, to feed the soul, not just make it lighter. What I found instead was Tea with Eggs. Digby attributes this recipe to a Jesuit who brought it back from China around 1664, and who then gave it to Digby’s friend, Mr. Waller. Here’s the recipe:

To near a pint of the infusion take two yolks of new laid eggs, and beat them very well with as much fine Sugar as is sufficient for this quantity of Liquor; when they are very well incorporated, pour your Tea upon the Eggs and Sugar, and stir them well together. So drink it hot.

Frankly, I feel this isn’t too far from stirring a raw egg into hot soup, which I think is pretty delicious. But, tea? I’m not sure I’d be game for that. Digby goes on to outline the circumstances and benefits where such a dish might be beneficial:

This is when you come home from attending business abroad, and are very hungry, and yet have not conveniency to eat presently a competent meal. This presently difusseth and satisfieth all rawness and indigence of the stomack, and flyeth suddainly over the whole body and into the veins, and strengtheneth exceedingly, and preserves one a good while from necessity of eating.

That’s a strong pitch. Ultimately, I think I’ll just order some pizza.