David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: October 2007 (page 1 of 2)

Charles Sanders Peirce

I am a man of whom critics have never found anything good to say. When they could see no opportunity to injure me, they have held their peace. The little laudation I have had has come from such sources, that only the satisfaction I have derived from it, has been from such slices of bread and butter as it might waft my way. Only once, as far as I remember, in all my lifetime have I experienced the pleasure of praise–not for what it might bring but in itself. That pleasure was beatific; and the praise that conferred it was meant for blame. It was that a critic said of me that I did not seem to be absolutely sure of my own conclusions. Never, if I can help it, shall that great critic’s eye ever rest on what I am now writing; for I owe a great pleasure to him; and, such was his evident animus, that should he find that out, I fear the fires of hell would be fed with new fuel in his breast.

Charles Sanders Peirce, “Preface to an Unwritten Book”

I was introduced to Peirce by a man who said that Peirce scholars tended to be rather eccentric, like the man himself. At age 27, he published the fairly brilliant “On a New List of Categories” (the greatest American work of neo-Kantianism of the 19th century?), whose idiosyncratic depiction of the process of judgment gives little indication of his forays into physics, biology, logic, philosophy of mind (where he shares some of his views with William James), philosophy of language and linguistic development, and “pragmaticism.” As far as comprehensiveness goes, I think he doesn’t have a real American successor until Wilfred Sellars.

But the eccentricity of some Peirce specialists wasn’t concretized for me until I stumbled on this book: His Glassy Essence: An Autobiography of Charles Sanders Peirce, by Kenneth Laine Ketner. It is written in an informal style in the voice of Peirce (and this is before the Reagan “autobiography” that garnered so much attention). I have no problem with the approach in principle, but it does make sense that it would be applied to Peirce; I can’t ever imagine someone writing an “autobiography” of Hegel or Heidegger. Ketner is also the co-author of US Patent 6819474 – Quantum Switches and Circuits, alongside another Peircian and…Charles Sanders Peirce himself, possibly with reference to Peirce’s hypothesis that electrical switches could execute logical operations.

Ketner is, of course, the Charles Sanders Peirce Professor of Philosophy at Texas Tech University.

Richard Hughes: A High Wind in Jamaica

Once fully convinced of this astonishing fact, that she was now Emily Bas-Thornton (why she inserted the “now she did not know, for she certainly imagined no transmigrational nonsense of having been any one else before), she began seriously to reckon its implications.

First, what agency had so ordered it that out of all the people in the world who she might have been, she was this particular one, this Emily: born in such-and-such a year out of all the years in Time, and encased in this particular rather pleasing little casket of flesh? Had she chosen herself, or had God done it?

The sheer oddness of this book really defies summary. The choice of Henry Darger for the cover picture is, as Dan Schank commented, entirely appropriate for this wispy tale of young children on a benevolent pirate ship, and the ensuing lost innocence, etc. But the book pulls in other directions simultaneously; hints of developing sexuality have to contend with the metaphysics of the passage above and one very bizarre murder. And what is one to make of this offhand paragraph?

Mathias shrugged. After all, a criminal lawyer is not concerned with facts. He is concerned with probabilities. It is the novelist who is concerned with facts, whose job it is to say what a particular man did do on a particular occasion: the lawyer does not, cannot be expected to go further than to show what the ordinary man would be most likely to do under presumed circumstances.

The novel throws off odd sparks like this one regularly, and despite the closeness the narration eventually takes to Emily’s inner voice, the narrator asserts himself (and it’s definitely a he) as a separate and adult voice throughout. I can’t come to a general sense of how the child and adult voices mix, but it does appear that the adult narrator is moving towards the same tactile emotional sensitivity that Emily encounters as she moves into adolescence. (She is 10.) So when this paragraph rises up in an otherwise pedestrian scene–

There is a period in the relations of children with any new grown-up in charge of them, the period between first acquaintance and the first reproof, which can only be compared to the primordial innocence of Eden. Once a reproof has been administered, this can never be recovered again.

–the novel seems to have thoroughly inhabited the child’s state of mind, which stretches outward to contort the novel into unreal and fable-like shapes. It may bear a slight resemblance to Nabokov’s darker fairy tales like Despair and Bend Sinister, but mostly its world is its own.

Ingeborg Bachmann: Three Paths to the Lake

It wouldn’t do to return to Paris and tell Philippe he should take his pajamas, his razor and his few books and get out, it wouldn’t be that easy, and there were still things which had to be done for his sake. The phrases–I don’t need you, I don’t need anyone, it doesn’t have anything to do with you, it’s just me, and I don’t feel like explaining it!–were easy to think but not easy to say, just like that, in Paris, just as she couldn’t very well say: My brother has gotten married and it’s over between us, I hope you understand. There was only one hope she didn’t and wouldn’t allow herself to hold on to: that if, in almost thirty years, she hadn’t found a man, not a single one, who was exclusively significant for her, not a single one who was really a man and not an eccentric, a weakling or one of the needy the world was full of–then the man simply didn’t exist, and as long as this New Man did not exist, one could only be friendly and kind to one another, for a while. There was nothing more to make of it, and it would be strong and mysterious and have real greatness, something to which each could once against submit.

Sellars on Following a Rule

The key to the concept of a linguistic rule is its complex relation to pattern-governed linguistic behavior. The general concept of pattern governed behavior is a familiar one. Roughly it is the concept of behavior which exhibits a pattern, not because it is brought about by the intention that it exhibit this pattern, but because the propensity to emit behavior of the pattern has been selectively reinforced, and the propensity to emit behavior which does not conform to this pattern selectively extinguished.

“Meaning as a Functional Classification” (1974)

Sellars’ main point that following a rule does not require intentionality is very much his own (I guess it owes something to Peirce’s notions of conceptual acquisition), but this is a very lucid statement of what I believe Wittgenstein himself to be saying about following linguistic rules: i.e., that it is a genuinely evolutionary process in which various linguistic patterns thrive or die off, and it is the very act of their linguistic usages in a particular pattern that legislates their continued use in that pattern.

But I’ll also, somewhat grudgingly, admit that I see some Hegel in here too. As all legislative usage has the potential to be transgressive against some dominant propensity, perhaps I can draw the analogy to the very end of the Phenomenology and its two antagonists, Acting Consciousness and Judging Consciousness. AC transgresses, JC condemns. AC confesses, JC forgives, and thus in that reconciliation we reach Absolute Knowing. Okay, that was the quick version. But linguistic usage brushes up against two opposing walls that are somewhat analogous to AC and JC: behavioral dissuasion and behavioral reinforcement, respectively. It is all conditioning, but it is a process of reconciliation too, in the same way that evolution reconciles mutation with fitness.

E.T.A. Hoffman: Master Flea

This quote comes when Peregrinus is using a microscope that allows him to observe people’s thoughts from the motion of their physical brain and nerves.

It may finally be remarked that as a result of his observations through the microscope Peregrinus suffered great embarrassment from many people. These people were the young men who were constantly being carried away by rapturous enthusiasm and letting loose torrents of sonorous cliches. The most profound and sonorous among them were young poets, brimming over with imagination and genius, who had to endure a great deal of adulation, especially from ladies. There were also literary women, who knew all the depths of sublunary existence, as the phrase goes, like the backs of their hands; they also held penetrating philosophical views on the constitution of society, and could deliver these in eloquent language, like an Easter sermon. If Peregrinus had been astonished to see the silver threads in Gamaheh’s brain twining into an invisible region, he was no less amazed at what he beheld in the brains of the people just mentioned. He saw the strange network of veins and nerves, but noticed also that when these people talked with exceptional eloquence about art and learning and the main currents of intellectual life, their veins and nerves did not penetrate into the recesses of their brains, but curved back, so that it was impossible to discern their thoughts with any clarity. He communicated this observation to Master Flea, who was sitting as usual in a fold of his neckerchief. Master Flea remarked that what Peregrinus had mistaken for thoughts were nothing more than words, vainly endeavouring to become thoughts.

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