Monday, 30 December 2013

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch stole my Christmas

There are three novels in this book one of which might have been good if overseen by an editor with a sharp scissors. That one would have been an antiques procedural; Lovejoy in Manhattan saying ' you don't get that sort of work any more and patina is not a girl's name'. However what we got was a cake with too much fruit that sank and moreover had a soggy bottom. I've read two comparisons to Dickens in reviews which is only intelligible as a hint from the publicist. The hype balloon broke free from its moorings and was lost to sight.

We are told in almost an afterthought at the end of the book that the flashback which is its core is based on notebooks which the writer has been keeping from his youth. If that were so why is the early part of the story so decidedly not in keeping with the mind of a thirteen year old boy. He knows the colour of his mother's eyes very precisely. Really. We are not told of his position on accent walls.

Troops of tropes: ...the breeze was as heavy as teakettle steam......polychrome edge between truth and untruth....

The smells, the shadows, even the dappled pale trunks of the plane trees lifted my spirits but yet it was as if I was seeing another Park beneath the tangible one, a map to the past, a ghost Park dark with memory, school outings and zoo visits of long ago.

It hovers between the real and, yes Holden, the phoney. High end trash is what it is, 771 pages in large format paperback. I finished it, as one does, more in hope than in expectoration.

Non placet.

Going Astray

I see that Peter Geach’s (1916 - dec. 2013 ) Mental Acts is available on internet archive:
Mental Acts
Back in the dim and distant asking for it at the library desk where a few copies were on hold I was told that it would be kept in the Medical Library. Well I’ll be sectioned! Was there ever any more abstruse topic explicated with such clarity?

His observations on worshipping the wrong god (God and the Soul) seem to me to be unconvincing and the analogy from confusion of the personality and aims of some particular politician with another one and casting your vote on that basis doesn’t go on all fours. You may hold to a Triniatrian view of God and another to a singular Deity but to believe that prayers directed by a Jew or a Muslim go astray like a poorly addressed letter is not sensible. That is not his assertion but it seems a valid reductio.

God is the ultimate sorter. You may be going astray but you’re going astray in the right direction.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

The Tragic Sense of Life by Unamuno

"The Western theology," Dean Stanley wrote, "is essentially logical in form and based on law. The Eastern theology is rhetorical in form and based on philosophy. The Latin divine succeeded to the Roman advocate. The Oriental divine succeeded to the Grecian sophist."

And all the laboured arguments in support of our hunger of immortality, which pretend to be grounded on reason or logic, are merely advocacy and sophistry.
(from The Tragic Sense of Life by Miguel de Unamuno )

Eastern in this excerpt means Eastern Orthodox. There are some references to transmigration but it is the personal post mortem Christian survival that Unamuno is interested in; not paradoxically to resolve the question but to use his uncertainty to remain in a state of heroic suspension.

The absolute and complete certainty, on the one hand, that death is a complete, definite, irrevocable annihilation of personal consciousness, a certainty of the same order as the certainty that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles, or, on the other hand, the absolute and complete certainty that our personal consciousness is prolonged beyond death in these present or in other conditions, and above all including in itself that strange and adventitious addition of eternal rewards and punishments—both of these certainties alike would make life impossible for us. In the most secret chamber of the spirit of him who believes himself convinced that death puts an end to his personal consciousness, his memory, for ever, and all unknown to him perhaps, there lurks a shadow, a vague shadow, a shadow of shadow, of uncertainty, and while he says within himself, "Well, let us live this life that passes away, for there is no other!" the silence of this secret chamber speaks to him and murmurs, "Who knows!..." He may not think he hears it, but he hears it nevertheless. And likewise in some secret place of the soul of the believer who most firmly holds the belief in a future life, there is a muffled voice, a voice of uncertainty, which whispers in the ear of his spirit, "Who knows!..." These voices are like the humming of a mosquito when the south-west wind roars through the trees in the wood; we cannot distinguish this faint humming, yet nevertheless, merged in the clamour of the storm, it reaches the ear. Otherwise, without this uncertainty, how could we live?

Faith for Unamuno is no sort of knowledge and it has no aspect of self confirmation in the sense that living by it opens up vistas and capacities that are beyond the personal. He could not put off the old rationalist man and go into the unmapped territory of grace.

In any case it is not irrational to have a natural intimation of immortality. In the Kena Upanishad II.4:

It (i.e. Bhahman) is really known when It is known with (i.e. as the Self off) each state of consciousness, because thereby one gets immortality. (Since) through one’s own Self is acquired strength, (therefore) through knowledge is attained immortality.

Shakara’s Commentary: Pratibodha-videtam known with reference to each state of intelligence. By the word bodha are meant the cognitions acquired through the intellect. the Self, that encompasses all ideas as its objects, is known in relation to all these ideas. Being the witness of all cognitions, and by nature nothing but the power of consciousness, the Self is indicated by the cognitions themselves, in the midst of cognitions, as non-different from them. There is no other door to its awareness

There is no other door to its awareness. The natural path to the intimation of immortality is via the simultaneous synchronic and diachronic awareness of the self.

Unamuno being still under the influence of positivistic philosophy writes:

Also a principle of continuity in time. Without entering upon a discussion—an unprofitable discussion—as to whether I am or am not he who I was twenty years ago, it appears to me to be indisputable that he who I am to-day derives, by a continuous series of states of consciousness, from him who was in my body twenty years ago. Memory is the basis of individual personality, just as tradition is the basis of the collective personality of a people. We live in memory and by memory, and our spiritual life is at bottom simply the effort of our memory to persist, to transform itself into hope, the effort of our past to transform itself into our future.

This is the theory whereby memory has the magical power of creating its own subject. Memory does however show the reality of self-identity. That reality is best approached through a focus on the underlying structure of any state of consciousness. It is clear that all intimations of immortality and enhanced realizations of the self come about through an intense immersion in the present moment. Taking thought in a discursive way will not achieve that. We need to be still. Unamuno had no doubt a fine intellect but reading his way into self-realization simply dug the hole he was in deeper. Miguel, put down that shovel!

A wise counsellor, a discerner of souls is what he needed but I surmise, and I may be absolutely wrong, that this was something he dispensed with fearing that his authentic solution would be compromised. Still, I read on and it is a rescue remedy for the peevish smallness of Nothing to be Frightened Of.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

When Logos meets Mythos

It is an interesting thought experiment. When God has selected two suitable humans for infusion with a rational soul out of a population that is genetically similar how does this enhancement manifest itself? In what way would they be intellectually different from their former group? Are the hominids theo-zombies gibbering before the Monolith while Adam and Eve are devising bio-degradable underwear?

Theological speculation or logos is trying to save mythos. Kemp on Monogenesis takes you back in time but please don’t step off the theological ramp.

Kemp on Monogenesis

Friday, 20 December 2013

Unamuno on Reason, Right and Conviction

Interesting usage by Unamuno here during his barracking by the Falangists. He seems to be drawing the same contrast between ‘to persuade’ and ‘to convince’ that I intuitively discerned as allogenic and autogenic.

Millán-Astray responded: "¡Muera la inteligencia! ¡Viva la Muerte!" ("Death to intelligence! Long live death!"), provoking applause from the Falangists. Pemán, in an effort to calm the crowd, exclaimed"¡No! ¡Viva la inteligencia! ¡Mueran los malos intelectuales!" ("No! Long live intelligence! Death to the bad intellectuals!")
Unamuno continued: "This is the temple of intelligence, and I am its high priest. You are profaning its sacred domain. You will win [venceréis], because you have enough brute force. But you will not convince [pero no convenceréis]. In order to convince it is necessary to persuade, and to persuade you will need something that you lack: reason and right in the struggle. I see it is useless to ask you to think of Spain. I have spoken." Millán-Astray, controlling himself, shouted "Take the lady's arm!" Unamuno took Carmen Polo by the arm and left in her protection.
(from Wikipedia Unamuno)

Yes of course it’s Spanish but being a Romance language it stays even closer to Latin roots. Reason and right have to find a resonance in the person whom you are trying to persuade. This arising from within produces conviction.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

It's Life Jim

Some philosophers have been tightening with their little logic spanners the shy offering of LIFE . An attempt to capture our attention has worked like blood in a swimming pool of barracudas. Poor Mr. Joyce is quite skeletonised and yet the article itself has much to interest the philosopher who is prepared to exercise charity and finger tightening. The mystery of how humans arrived in a slow ascent from rocks and gas given the loss of many intermediate steps is not likely to be laid to rest in a logical fashion and caviling about the definition of life is captious.

Perhaps there ought to be a pejorative word like 'scientism' that applies to philosophy. Klismatism (klismos/chair) perhaps.

Friday, 13 December 2013


Socrates sat down next to him and said, “How wonderful it would be, dear Agathon, if the foolish were filled with wisdom simply by touching the wise. If only wisdom were like water, which always flows from a full cup into an empty one when we connect them with a piece of yarn - well, then I would consider it the greatest prize to have the chance to lie down next to you.”

It seems that some Yogis have claimed to be able to do just that and have used this transcendental hello sailor to seduce naive followers. That does not mean that genuine shaktipath or initiation through touch or at a distance is not at the gift of a master. It isn’t wisdom or realization that is given in this manner but an experience of a higher level of consciousness that can confirm and strengthen the faith of the devotee. Such charisms are well attested in all the major traditions and have the added benefit of being Humeanly discounted. It can’t be evidenced because it can’t be true David says.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Plato is a Smart Man.....

But he doesn’t know what Love is. This is the essence of Gregory Vlastos’s paper Plato: The Individual as an Object of Love(1973). With 101 footnotes and an appendix distinguishing Platonic Love as vulgarly understood from Plato’s febrile sublimations, this is the scholarship of shock and awe. Plato’s view of the person is instrumental, your value is located in your usefulness to others or to the state. This is in contrast to Aristotelian ‘philein’:

Let philein be defined, writes Aristotle in the Rhetoric, as wishing for someone what you believe to be good things - wishing this not for your own sake but for his - and acting so far as you can to bring this about.

Vlastos has the rare combination of precision and lucidity that makes reading a joy. After a night of insomnia spent reading it I toddled off to bed at 6A.M. quite rested. I found this paper in Philosophy Through Its Past (ed.Ted Honderich) a Pelican/Penguin from 1984.

As a theory of the love of persons, this is its crux: What we are to love in persons is the ‘image’ of the Idea in them. We are to love the person so far, and only in so far, as they are good and beautiful. Now since all too few human beings are masterworks of excellence, and not even the best of those we have the chance to love are wholly free of streaks of the ugly, the mean, the commonplace, the ridiculous, if our love for them is to be be only for their virtue and beauty, the individual, in the uniqueness and integrity of his or her individuality, will never be the object of our love. This seems to me to be the cardinal flaw in Plato’s theory.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Socrates died for our sins.

The Day of Socrates begins with the sunset, the Joke of Socrates begins with the punch-line. A retroactive benignity is cast over all dubious assertions. In a possible world a vendor does not know what he is selling and has no way of describing its benefits. This possible world is in a permanent state of economic depression. Timeo Danaos et non dona ferentes. Gorgias, that stumer, is unable to describe what his trade supplies or its something like - stick around me and you’ll pick up the knack I promise you.

Even when you were 11 or so and beginning to write essays at school you were advised of certain useful practices:
Mammy, where’s my pencil?
It’s not topped, where’s my topper, I can’t write with a 2H, I want 2 B or HB. This milk is too cold and I want to drink it now.

All that being fixed we put our thoughts in order of importance, with an introductory paragraph and so on and so forth. This is easy and works no matter what the topic is. Try not to repeat yourself. O.K.

Monday, 9 December 2013

The Spell of Socrates?

I have never been under the spell of Socrates but perhaps that is part of the intent of Plato or is that too subtle a reading. In F.J.E. Woodbridge’s book The Son of Apollo he seems to take this view:

 In the arguments into which he draws others he is not fair as a disputant. Of the tricks of logic and the devices of rhetoric he is a master and trusts more to them than to coherent reasoning. Flattery, cajolery, insinuation, innuendo, sarcasm, feigned humility, personal idiosyncrasies, brow-beating, insolence, anger, changing the subject when in difficulty, distracting attention, faulty analogies, the torturing of words, making adjectives do the work of nouns and nouns of adjectives, tacking on verbs to qualities which could never use them, glad of an interruption or a previous engagement, telling stories which make one forget what the subject of discussion was, hinting that he could say much more and would if his hearers were up to it, promising more to-morrow if they are really interested and want to go on — an accomplished sophist if there ever was one.
The argumentation of Socrates can claim little, if any, superiority to human argumentation generally.
It is not the arguments which give him significance, but he who gives them significance. Plato has made him the incarnation of all the subtleties men use in argument to confirm or destroy opinions.

I was directed to this book by the excellent source book on Socrates compiled by John Ferguson (Open University Book). It is available at Internet Archive:
This at first glance seems to represent Plato as predominantly a creative artist presenting us Socrates as a character. Reading Gorgias at the moment with its haymakers which do not connect, its overcooked analogies, false disjunctions and a generally humourless animus towards rhetoric, it might be possible that its bad philosophy is good chamber drama. We understand that Socrates was clever and wise but does everyone else have to be stupid and ignorant to show this. This may be part of the deficiency of the dialogue form or an antique version of the political view that the other crowd are wrong about everything.

Friday, 6 December 2013

To Persuade, To Convince

I’ve been thinking about whether there is a distinction without a difference between‘convince’ and ‘persuade’. We read in the Acts: “ And he reasoned in the synagogue every sabbath, and persuaded the Jews and the Greeks”. I think that underlines what I am inclined to call the allogenic aspect of persuasion as against the autogenic force of conviction. In the philosophical mind rhetoric has captured the notion of persuasion and the link to covert influence as in ‘the hidden persuaders’ is well established. If we resist this leading however, appeal to rational grounds is an element of persuasion. Conviction comes when a position seems to conform to an inner sense of truth. We feel the force of it and as Coleridge said: “Deep Thinking is Deep Feeling.” Conviction follows in an autogenic manner. We are convinced.

Can persons within the Christian tradition be persuaded by the natural proofs for the existence of God? Certainly, all the elements of Rhetoric are in play. Outsiders have only the appeal to reason to respond to and that may be insufficient. ‘Converging and convincing arguments’ as the Catechism calls them fall short for many. They are not convinced.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Nothing to be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes (2008)

A little learning makes them shallow in their religion said Cardinal Newman characterising the attitude taken by former co-religionists to one who has turned. I would add that if for 100 years there has been no religion in a very academic family then the treatment of it will be as deep as the tread of a pond skater. Julian Barnes is the flower of this culture of irreligion who feels that he has understood it well enough if 50 odd years ago he stood in assembly at school and has gone to a few burial services. He affects a wistful approach to the absence of God - I don't believe in God but I miss him. His brother Jonathan, the Ancient Greek philosophy scholar, thinks that's soppy. I concur, wet to the point of saturation and beyond: dripping a pool of aesthetic regrets. ' If I were religious then works of art that had a religious theme would incite a greater frisson'. That's my summary of his approach which is answerable by the evidence of the profound ugliness
of some sacred spaces which have been built by the most committed believers. Don't worry, a Bach Cantata would bounce off them. What matters is faith and whether it plays a role in the creation of sacred art is a matter for the individual artist. I am coming to the invidious conclusion that without faith an artist is likely to be without access to inspiration or only intermittently so. By faith I mean not merely a confessional adherence or not even that; it is more an openness to what cannot be established by reason, the more without which everything is less.

The book that might be for him an introduction to Christianity or clear-light Catholicism would be The Imitation of Christ. It's the ultimate 'you feel warm because your house is on fire' book. Then I read the fatuous judgement of his guru Rene Girard, the main source of quotable quotes in his book which mines the cahiers of Barnes's youth.
"Neither does Jesus propose an ascetic rule of life in the sense of Thomas a Kempis and his celebrated Imitation of Christ, as admirable as that work may be."

Julian Barnes is a good writer. I re-read his Flaubert's Parrot recently after many years and I enjoyed it even more. There is a smoothness and assurance to his prose and like the pond-skater he distributes his weight impeccably. When a shriek is about to form it is banished by qualifications and remains under the surface.

'Nothing' nots as Geach said of Heidegger. As a meditation on death and those that he seems to have been lightly attached to it had to wait for the serious upgrade that the death of his wife brought about. The curious thing is that the death of his wife occurred only a few months after 'Nothing' was published. This followed 37 days after the diagnosis of a brain tumour. Levels of Life: to be read.

Sunday, 1 December 2013


Trolleyism is an attempt to take the heat out of a serious ethical problem and to observe intuitions. Given the general amorality of our times I have always felt that philosophy should be putting the heat back in . We ought to be roused from our slumbers and not soothed by dismal whimsy.