I finished Roland Barthes’ Mythologies this week. I don’t recall ever reading this collection of essays before, so I was quite pleased by how current many of them still seemed. Barthes’ had a keen eye for society. What I was stricken by the most were two passages in the lengthy essay on myth that ends the book.
The first bourgeois philosophers pervaded the world with significations, subjected all things to an idea of the rational, and decreed that they were meant for man: bourgeois ideology is of the scientistic or the intuitive kind, it records facts or perceives values, but refuses explanations; the order of the world can be seen as sufficient or ineffable, it is never seen as significant. Finally, the basic idea of a perfectible mobile world, produces the inverted image of an unchanging humanity, characterised by an indefinite repetition of its identity. (142)
I think looking at the history of Western philosophy we can trace this to the Greeks. This being the case, the interesting thing is how resistant to change the discipline has been. We see this now in the increasingly violent reactions to calls for change, such as the backlash Bryan van Norden and Jay Garfield received for their op ed in the New York Times a few years ago.
Philosophy reproduces itself by rejecting any form of radical change, and when it takes up new ideas, it’s only by assimilating them – i.e. by turning them into itself.
The other passage touches on this as well, at least slightly:
The Other becomes a pure object, a spectacle, a clown. Relegated to the confines of humanity, he no longer threatens the security of the home. This figure is chiefly petit-bourgeois. For, even if he is unable to experience the Other in himself, the bourgeois can at least imagine the place where he fits in: this is what is known as liberalism, which is a sort of intellectual equilibrium based on recognised places. The petit-bourgeois class is not liberal (it produces Fascism, whereas the bourgeoisie uses it): it follows the same route as the bourgeoisie, but lags behind. (152)
The Other in Western philosophy is relegated to the margins, or, assimilated. When marginalised, it manifests in the form of a complete rejection of the discourses that matter to the Other. An example of this, to my eye, is dropping any sort of religious connotations from Buddhist thought. This doesn’t happen only to non-Western philosophy though; consider the case of stripping away the theological assumptions in Cartesian philosophy, or taking any sort of ideas without their proper context, really. In assimilation, the Other is included only insofar as its discourses fit within those of the West.
Barthes isn’t talking about philosophy, he’s talking about culture. Nonetheless, philosophy, as practiced in the West at least, is a bourgeois endeavour. It doesn’t surprise then, that the failures of the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois that Barthes can identify in the French society of the 1950s are in some sense reproduced in academia.
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.
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
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 //
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 //
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.