I was dissatisfied with my 2015 reading. A number of projects and situations contrived to cut down my reading time drastically, and so this list feels even more provisional than most years, a grab-bag of things that stood out for me stood out for me personally rather than a considered ranking. I think in a better world we would all do books of a given year 5 to 10 years down the line, and the resulting lists would be far more well-considered. Maybe 25 or 50 years would be even better.
I was pulled into a number of projects and situations that obliterated both my concentration and reading time, the biggest being my Facilitated Communication investigation, which consumed an entire quarter of the year. That would not have been so bad by itself but a handful of other similar matters made it difficult to do as much comprehensive reading as I would have liked. I’ve resolved to change that this year.
So, wish a bit of disappointment and shame, I am attaching a “Promising Nonfiction” section of books I haven’t yet assessed. These are books that due to their subject matter, pedigree, author, or some other factor struck me as being worth investigating, but which I didn’t have time to do so. Note that it is entirely possible that some of these books are terrible–they just merit a look in my mind. (Example: Cesar Hidalgo’s Why Information Grows would have been on the promising list, but I did get time to take a look at it and it did not fulfill its promise. On the other hand, I am near-certain Noel Malcolm’s latest tome of scholarship is brilliant, but simply didn’t have time to get to a work so far outside outside my current area of focus.) If any readers have opinions on them, please chime in.
Sociologist Georg Simmel published his magnum opus, The Philosophy of Money, in 1900 in Germany. Drawing on Kant, Marx, and Weber among many, many others, the book has Simmel’s singular style that separates him from pretty much every other sociologist that has ever lived. The closest analogue I know might be C. Wright Mills in his more poetic moods, but where Mills is fiery and desperate, Simmel is far more reflective. In looking at money as a ground and metaphor for modern human social existence, Simmel often seems awestruck and overwhelmed by the sheer power and meaning of money in our society. Just as often he expresses reserved horror at the injustice and inhumanity that is lubricated by monetary commensurability.
The Philosophy of Money is a hybrid work of philosophy and sociology, perhaps a “philosophical anthropology” similar to that which Ernst Cassirer and Hans Blumenberg would later engage in. It is only loosely an economic work, because Simmel never gets to the point where he can generalize over the behavior of economic populations. Rather, he focuses on the psychological and sociological effects of money as a cultural determinant. And it’s very much the idea of money rather than capital or work. He is fascinated by the implications of the introduction of a universally commensurable measure of value that has no intrinsic value of its own. Rather than focusing on how people argue over the allocations of values, he looks at how the prior requirement, the nature of valuation itself, influences those discussions.
The main themes, as I read them, are the following:
Money as a structural metaphor for human existence (almost every aspect of it)
The dual nature of the word “value,” moral and monetary
The physicalization, universalization, and commodification of value (through money or otherwise)
The effects of valuation and commensurability on human relations
The final theme ultimately becomes most important, but Simmel spends time laying the groundwork for it by examining the nature of value and how it is assigned and fixed, before he then moves on to how value is standardized and made portable and universal by money. Simmel’s treatment of “value” is heavily influenced by Kant’s first and third critique, which isn’t too surprising given that Simmel came out of the 19th century neo-Kantian movement which wanted to reclaim Kant’s worth after Hegelianism had petered out. Value, being something not assigned by nature but by creatures, becomes a crucial cognitive category in life, despite being something that each of us has comparatively little control over. (Language is also a category of this sort, though at least in 1900 “value”‘s constructed nature was a bit more clear than that of language.)
Simmel makes clear just how philosophical it is by declaring in the introduction that money has attracted his attention because it is the purest and most ubiquitous manifestation of the perennial problem that has vexed philosophers, the relation between the universal and the particular:
Money is simply a means, a material or an example for the presentation of relations that exist between the most superficial, ‘realistic’ and fortuitous phenomena and the most idealized powers of existence, the most profound currents of individual life and history. The significance and purpose of the whole undertaking is simply to derive from the surface level of economic affairs a guideline that leads to the ultimate values and things of importance in all that is human.
In the tradition of early modern philosophers, Simmel writes with no notes, footnotes, or references, and mentions of other authors are sparing. In a dense, 500-page work, this is quite foreboding, and Simmel seems to have been one of the last to get away with it to this extent. In compensation, though, he adopts what I can only call a sonata-like stye. Unlike James Joyce in the “Sirens” chapter of Ulysses, Simmel isn’t consciously trying to fit a musical form onto his writing. It’s just that because he is writing in a semi-casual yet resolutely abstract manner, he develops a very particular technique for keeping readers (and himself) located in the flow of the work. He repeats his major themes quite often, rephrasing them but leaving the underlying points unmistakable. (In fact, by rephrasing the points over and over, he makes it easier to grasp what is essential among those points.) So where Joyce’s chapter is one of the less successful conceits of Ulysses, because the form and content do not reach enough of a unity (similar to “Oxen of the Sun”) to give the feel of an organic whole, The Philosophy of Money feels very organic, through-composed, and linear. This, as well as Simmel’s comparatively plain German style, are helpful features, because Simmel is doing deep conceptual work rather than case studies or data analysis.
Alternatively, you can think of The Philosophy of Money as following a tree structure, points and subpoints emerging from a common root and diverging, except where most philosophers simply present their overarching root theses and then cover the tree branch by branch assuming the root theses have been fully assimilated, Simmel repeats some of the root and main branch material every time he finishes one subbranch or leaf and goes to another. This makes the book redundant at times, but also makes it far easier to absorb.
Simmel was aware that he was going against the current of both anthropological and philosophical investigations. His book is closer to Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities than it is to Durkheim or even Weber, except Musil manifested his archetypes as “characters” and developed his themes through the stretched conceits of fiction. (Musil attended Simmel’s classes around this time.) Simmel just thinks and thinks and thinks, touching on specifics only as the urge strikes him. He is aware of the dangers of this approach, yet he finds his anchor in the concrete existence of money, the substance which we see and feel and count, something that is right before us and lacks the abstruse invisibility of “cognition” or “being.”
The unity of these investigations does not lie, therefore, in an assertion about a particular content of knowledge and its gradually accumulating proofs but rather in the possibility which must be demonstrated—of finding in each of life’s details the totality of its meaning. The great advantage of art over philosophy is that it sets itself a single, narrowly defined problem every time: a person, a landscape, a mood. Every extension of one of these to the general, every addition of bold touches of feeling for the world is made to appear as an enrichment, a gift, an undeserved benefit. On the other hand, philosophy, whose problem is nothing less than the totality of being, tends to reduce the magnitude of the latter when compared with itself and offers less than it seems obliged to offer. Here, conversely, the attempt is made to regard the problem as restricted and small in order to do justice to it by extending it to the totality and the highest level of generality.
Philosophy has become too windy, he says, and no longer touches down on anything that most people can recognize. Money is something that we all know.
Classic Kronos: The Mutilation of Uranus by Saturn (Kronos)
It is easy to confuse the Greek god of time, Chronos (Χρόνος), with Zeus’ Titan father, Kronos (Κρόνος). So easy, in fact, that the conflation has been made for over two thousand years. The Greeks conflated them regularly, at least according to Plutarch. The Romans then coopted Kronos into the form of Saturn, who later became known as Father Time and the god of time.
To make things even more confusing, sometime in the late Roman Empire, Saturn was then conflated with the Greek concept of kairos, which designates a pregnant or opportune “special” time. Kairos is somewhat opposed to chronos, which signifies day-to-day time in general. Chronos is the quotidian, the recurrent, the passing of the years, while kairos is the moment, the event, the suspension of the normal. But both were piled onto Saturn over the centuries.
Time is always a messy concept, in mythology and otherwise. I haven’t found a good overview of the nooks and crannies of these nominal twins; this is my attempt.
The Greek origins are frustratingly fuzzy, as usual. Chronos doesn’t appear in Hesiod’s Theogony, which tells the usual story of Kronos eating his children and then being tricked by his wife Rheia into regurgitating them, then being defeated by them (as well as Zeus, who Rheia hid).
But Chronos does appear in the cosmogony of the sixth century BCE writer Pherekydes of Syros. Pherekydes posits three primordial deities: Chronos, proto-Zeus figure Zas, and proto-Gaia figure Chthonie. Zas marries Chtonie and gives her the earth and sea as a wedding present, turning Chthonie into her present Ge, the earth. The gifts are partly created, however, by Chronos himself:
Zas always existed, and Chronos and Chthonie, as the three first principles.. .and Chronos made out of his own seed fire and wind [or breath] and water… from which, when they were disposed in five recesses, were composed numerous other offspring of gods, what is called ‘of the five recesses’, which is perhaps the same as saying ‘of five worlds’.
Fragment 52, Kirk, Raven, Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers
Then there is a big gap in our knowledge, and the next thing we have from Pherekydes is Kronos (not Chronos) fighting with Ophioneus over who should hold the heavens. Kronos wins. Apart from the oddness of Kronos allying with Zas, there are all sorts of other questions:
Scholars have generally assumed that at some point Chronos becomes Kronos, and Zas Zeus, and perhaps Ge Rheia. Such an assumption seems likely to be right, but poses some problems for our understanding of the relationship between Zeus and Kronos: do they clash as in Hesiod after the fall of Ophioeus, or are they allies in that battle and subsequently, with Zeus simply assuming a more prominent role toward the end of the poem? … There still remains the fact that Zeus (as Zas) and Kronos (as Chronos) have both existed forever, in contrast to Ophioneus, and there seems no good reason why either of them should suddenly engage in conflict with the other….
On the whole, then, I think it best to assume that Zas and Chronos work together in harmony from beginning (of which there is none) to end, and that the battle with Ophioneus (from his name clearly a Typhoeus counterpart) and his brood is the only conflict which Pherekydes envisioned.
Timothy Gantz, Early Greek Myth
Kirk and Raven say that Pherekydes was clearly “addicted to etymologies,” and so perhaps did the joining of similarly named gods, turning Time into a creator and Zeus and Kronos into allies.
Onto the post-classical Hellenistic world. In his book on the Orphic poems, M.L. West tells of Clement quoting from a hymn to a god that is both father and son to Zeus: “The god is probably Kronos (Chronos), called Zeus’ son because of the story in the Rhapsodic Theogony that Zeus swallowed the older gods and brought them forth again. Cf. Hymn 8.13” This leaves us with the perplexing loop of Kronos killing both his father and children, only to have his surviving son become his father.
And the ourobourus is doubly appropriate because one of Chronos’ early forms was a winged serpent, which developed into a three-headed serpent in Orphic cosmogony:
The serpent form of Chronos may have its origins in Egyptian fantasy, but in Orphic poetry it took on a symbolic significance which justified its retention and elaboration. Chronos was represented, we are told, as a winged serpent with additional heads of a bull and a lion, and between them the face of a god. How is this to be imagined? The detail that the wings were `on his shoulders’ suggests that the whole upper part of his body was of human shape apart from the wings and extra heads. This is also indicated by the fact that his consort, who was `of the same nature’, had arms. If the couple are mainly anthropomorphic above the waist and snakelike below, they are reminiscent of Echidna (Hes. Th. 298-9, Hdt. 4.9.1), and even more of her consort Typhoeus as he is represented on a well-known Chalcidian hydria in Munich.
M.L. West, The Orphic Poems
Zeus and Typhoeus (akin to the Orphic Chronos–minus two heads)
West sees a common Indo-European origin to these myths shared by Indian, Egyptian, and Greek sources. He speculates:
The snake was an ancient and natural symbol of eternity because of its habit of sloughing its skin off and so renewing its youth. It may also be relevant that the serpent with human head and arms is the regular shape of river-gods. The idea of Time as a river is present in at least one passage of tragedy (Critias 43 F 3.1-3 `Tireless Time with his ever-flowing stream runs full, reborn from himself’); and it would be assisted by the fact that Oceanus is usually the father of rivers, if in the Orphic poem Chronos was represented as born to Oceanus. River-gods are not usually fitted with wings, of course, and would have no use for them. But they are a natural adjunct for a cosmic serpent with no earth to glide upon. We may compare the wings of Pherecydes’ world tree, and in art the wings of the sun’s horses. In a wider context, wings are freely bestowed by archaic artists upon all manner of divine beings, and fabulous monsters such as sphinxes and griffins are also winged; the type of the winged Typhoeus has its place with them. That Time should be winged is something in which it is easy to find symbolic meaning.
M.L. West, The Orphic Poems
As an anthropomorphic god, however, Chronos fades out while Kronos retains his standard position as Zeus’ father, parricide, and filicide in classical Greek sources.
Plutarch, though, continues to speak of a more figurative allegory known in the Orphic cults and to the Greeks in general:
And they are those that tell us that, as the Greeks are used to allegorize Kronos (or Saturn) into chronos (time), and Hera (or Juno) into aer (air) and also to resolve the generation of Vulcan into the change of air into fire, so also among the Egyptians, Osiris is the river Nile, who accompanies with Isis, which is the earth; and Typhon is the sea, into which the Nile falling is thereby destroyed and scattered, excepting only that part of it which the earth receives and drinks up, by means whereof she becomes prolific.
Plutarch, “Of Isis and Osiris”
Kronos was not the only one to be allegorized into chronos, however. There are bits of evidence of hero-demigod Herakles/Hercules also being equated with the winged serpent.
Athenagoras and Damascius both record that the winged serpent Chronos was also called Heracles. Why? What was there about Heracles that enabled him to be identified with a creature of such physical monstrosity and such cosmic importance? Only one plausible answer has so far been suggested. In the legendary cycle of twelve labours, in the course of which Heracles overcame a lion, a bull, and various other dangerous fauna, some allegorical interpreters saw the victorious march of the sun through the twelve signs of the zodiac. Time is measured by the sun and the solar year. It is thus that Heracles-Helios can be addressed by the author of the Orphic Hymns as `father of Time’ (12.3), and by Nonnus as `thou who revolvest the son of Time, the twelve-month year’ (D. 40.372). By the same token, it may be argued, the Orphic Chronos, Time himself, might be identified with Heracles, the indomitable animal-tamer of the zodiac.
However, there is another possibility. For Plato, time is defined by the complex movements of the sun, moon, and planets; and when they have played through all their permutations and returned to the same relative positions, the `perfect year’ and the `perfect number of time’ are complete. The early Stoics derived from this their doctrine of the Great Year, at the end of which the cosmos is totally dissolved into fire. They defined time as the dimension of cosmic movement. Time was therefore coextensive with the Great Year, and could be considered to pause in the ecpyrosis. Now we find in Seneca, after a thoroughly Stoic exposition of the identity of God, the author of the world, with Nature and Fate, the argument that he may be equated with (among other divinities) Hercules, `because his force is invincible, and when it is wearied by the promulgation of works, it will retire into fire’. The allusion is on the one hand to the Stoic ecpyrosis, on the other to the pyre on the summit of Mount Oeta in which Heracles was cremated and achieved apotheosis after completing his labours. In this Stoic allegorization of the Heracles myth, then, the cycle of labours corresponds to the totality of divine activity in the course of the Great Year. Since divine activity is coextensive with the cosmos, that means that Heracles’ labours represent everything that happens in cosmic time.
M.L. West, The Orphic Poems
This is admittedly rather speculative. It is noteworthy, however, because it links Chronos to one of two Greek cults that thrived heavily under Rome, those of Herakles and Dionysus.
The movement from the literal to the figurative is not the only direction. The process works in reverse as well. What subsequently happens is a combining and recombining in which incompatible features are freely merged and tossed away. Here the best single guide is Ernst Panofsky’s article “Father Time.”
In none of these ancient representations do we find the hourglass, the scythe or sickle, the crutches, or any signs of a particularly advanced age. In other words, the ancient images of Time are either characterized by symbols of fleeting speed and precarious balance, or by symbols of universal power and infinite fertility, but not by symbols of decay and destruction. How, then, did these most specific attributes of Father Time come to be introduced?
The answer lies in the fact that the Greek expression for time, Chronos, was very similar to the name of Kronos (the Roman Saturn), oldest and most formidable of the gods. A patron of agriculture, he generally carried a sickle. As the senior member of the Greek and Roman Pantheon he was professionally old, and later, when the great classical divinities came to be identified with the planets, Saturn was associated with the highest and slowest of these. When religious worship gradually disintegrated and was finally supplanted by philosophical speculation, the fortuitous similarity between the words Chronos and Kronos was adduced as proof of the actual identity of the two concepts which really had some features in common. According to Plutarch, who happens to be the earliest author to state this identity in writing, Kronos means Time in the same way as Hera means Air and Hephaistos, Fire.
The Neoplatonics accepted the identification on metaphysical rather than physical grounds. They interpreted Kronos, the father of gods and men, as nous, the Cosmic Mind (while his son Zeus or Jupiter was likened to its ’emanation,’ the psyche, or Cosmic Soul) and could easily merge this concept with that of Chronos, the ‘father of all things,’ the ‘wise old builder,’ as he had been called. The learned writers of the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. began to provide Kronos-Saturn with new attributes like the snake or dragon biting its tail, which were meant to emphasize his temporal significance. Also, they re-interpreted the original features of his image as symbols of time, His sickle, traditionally explained eithcr as an agricultural implement or as the instrument of castration, came to be interpreted as a symbol of tempora quae sicut falx in se recurrunt; and the mythical tale that he had devoured his own children was said to signify that Time, who had already been termed ‘sharp-toothed’ by Simonides and edax rerum by Ovid, devours whatever he has created.
Ernst Panofsky, “Father Time”
Note that pace Panofsky, the snake/dragon imagery of time was not new to the 4th/5th centuries CE. Neoplatonics like Proclus were aware of the Orphic cosmogonies and were resuscitating an existing, though latent, symbolism.
Nonetheless, we have some ex post facto justification here. New explanations are created that invoke anachronistic features of the deities. If Kronos devouring his children originally had nothing to do with time, now it does. Time now becomes gloomy because Saturn is gloomy. In place of Orphic “unaging” Time, we now get aged, cranky, hungry Time.
Far from being an abstraction limited to philosophy, Time seems better thought of as one of those absolute metaphors darting between concept, symbol, and personification. Time latches onto Kronos because of a lexical similarity, but it latches onto Herakles through arcane associations mostly lost to us. It infects myths like a virus.
By the age of Petrarch (1304-1374), Renaissance humanism makes for a new recombination. Petrarch’s Triumphs portrays a menacing, conquering time. Saturn was readymade for the job. Saturn’s castrating scythe now signifies the ravages of time. (Destruction is always an easily-reappropriated metaphor.) The scythe also links time easily to his compatriot Death, who is associated with the scythe as early as the 11th century.
Small wonder that the illustrators decided to fuse the harmless personification of ‘Temps’ with the sinister image of Saturn. From the former they took over the wings, from the latter the grim, decrepit appearance, the crutches, and, finally, such strictly Saturnian features as the scythe and the devouring motif. That this new image personified Time was frequently emphasized by an hourglass, which seems to make its first appearance in this new cycle of illustrations, and sometimes by the zodiac, or the dragon biting its tail.
Ernst Panofsky, “Father Time”
Petrarch’s Triumph of Time
And with this new conception of time, the menacing portions stick while the innocuous features–like the wings–do not, even though it was the wings that were associated with time in the first place! The serpent imagery is long-gone, overwritten by Christianity.
By this point, the idea of time devouring his children (not Zeus, but us) has taken on real metaphysical weight, and time the destroyer proceeds into the present day. It’s not Goya’s Saturn but Rubens’ Saturn that captures this new Saturn-as-Time, white beard, decrepit body, and staff/scythe.
Robert Musil published two large volumes of his unfinished The Man Without Qualities in his lifetime. Pseudoreality Prevails (as well as a short introduction) was published in 1930, and Into the Millennium (The Criminals)was published in 1933. He died in 1942 with nothing further published. Musil expected to live until 80 in order to finish the book, but died at age 59: the work was nowhere near completion, and since the book was a process without a foreordained end, Musil did not leave any clear plan for the book’s ending.
Genese Grill‘s new study, The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities: Possibility as Reality, provides an invaluable structure–the best I’ve encountered–for assessing the later sections and unfinished draft material of The Man Without Qualities. Grill wrote a superb chapter in the Camden House Companion to the Works of Robert Musil on The ‘Other’ Musil: Robert Musil and Mysticism, on which this book builds.
Anyone reading The Man Without Qualities is confronted with a perplexing shift as Into the Millennium progresses. After the surgical examination of European pre-war ideologies and populations in Pseudoreality Prevails, the autopsy gradually fades after Ulrich’s sister Agathe shows up in Into the Millennium. The socio-political commentary continues, but it is broader, more comical, more inane–best represented by the increasing dominance of the crackpot Meingast (based on Ludwig Klages, a Weininger-esque self-hating Jew with anti-semitic theories). Without such formidable intellectual content to critique, Ulrich (and Musil) seek a more mystical solution to the fragmenting and dissolution of modernity.
Ulrich pursues a mysterious “Other Condition” with his sister Agathe, some kind of intellectual-erotic union (consummated in the draft material) that puts the everyday world into suspension, at least briefly. It is left open whether this Other Condition is achieved or is even achievable, and its exact nature remains elusive. It’s easier to define it as what it is not: everyday reality, the political situation, bad expressionism, superficiality, irrationality, etc. This diagram from Musil’s notebooks (as translated by David Luft in Robert Musil and the Crisis of European Culture, 1880-1942) does not narrow the field:
Musil’s Diagram of the “Other Condition”
Musil’s simultaneous training in science and the humanities drove him to accept nothing less than exactitude in even the most spiritual dimensions, hence his twin ideals of “precision and soul.” He was suspicious of both the scientific technician and the bad expressionist that reaches too easily for transcendence. He demeaned Heideggerian pseudo-Romantic attempts to proclaim spiritual superiority as Schleudermystik (“cut-rate mysticism,” more literally “centrifugal mysticism”), “whose constant preoccupation with God is at bottom exceedingly immoral” (III.46).
Grill’s major achievement is in bringing together the disparate, unpublished material of Musil’s last years into a structure that clarifies, at least somewhat, Musil’s ambitions. Because Musil dealt in abstractions and stretched them by taking little for granted, the intent still remains very open to interpretation. My disagreements below are not based on what I think Musil intended, because I don’t have a clear idea of that. Instead, they’re attempts to contextualize the material in a different way. The passages below are almost wholly those used in her book, and I’m grateful to her for highlighting them.
In essence, Grill argues that the Other Condition was a primary force behind both the book and the writing of the book, a suspension of assumptions and embrace of contingency that opened up realms of possibility not available in daily life. Grill spends a fair bit of time drawing a striking comparison between Musil’s ambition and Proust’s. Musil’s focus on introspection and subjectivity was as great as Proust’s, even though the socio-political material makes this less obvious. (Two other close peers are James Joyce and Alfred Döblin.)
But Grill also points out the strong contrast between them: while Proust left a closed structure behind to serve as a working memory palace for understanding life through art, Musil’s attitude and the state of the Other Condition mandated that no such closure occur. (Hence Musil’s one-time plan to have the novel break off in the middle of a sentence.) Hence the novel’s fragmentation into possibility and ambivalence need not be seen as a failure on any level. Such a closure would have been a betrayal of the very principles behind the novel.
Grill’s argument proceeds roughly as follows through the four chapters:
Musil’s emphasis on circle-patterns in the later sections model the book’s rejection of linear everyday reality, embrace of contradiction and self-refutation, and a suspension of one’s attitudes to allow for a Nietzschean liberation from thoughtless conventions.
Transgression and “crime” constitute a means of veering out of repetitive patterns of life, thought, and metaphor. Agathe and Ulrich’s union is an attempt to escape those patterns, and is representative of the Other Condition, an attempt to find a supra-moral ethics.
Life is structured by our words and metaphors. They become ossified and stifling, and Musil saw the role of his writing as offering as much freedom from the confining strictures of our shared metaphorical life as possible.
The idea of the “still life” is paradoxical and central, offering on the one hand a deceased frozen moment, on the other a suspension from the regular flow of life that opens up all nonextant possibilities and a aesthetically disinterested revivification of metaphor.
The intersection of metaphor and life is a theme that I have been rather preoccupied with, but I had not given much thought to Musil’s treatment of it until reading Grill’s book.
I would argue that when Grill says that “Abstraction, insofar as it is connected to universal forms, is always closer to timelessness and further from utility than representation, which is drawn from and comments upon particularities of place and moment” (32), she has muddled the issue a bit. Abstraction remains present to a far greater degree in particularities than we realize. It is obscured by the sheer reinforcement of the metaphorical structures that come to seem purely representative. Seemingly “abstract” thinking can be more liberating than the desiccated imagery of poetry precisely because it is not more abstract, but only more free:
In our poems there is too much rigid reason; the words are burned-out notions, the syntax holds out sticks and ropes as if for the blind, the meaning never gets off the ground everyone has trampled; the awakened soul cannot walk in such iron garments. (1564)
Leaving the precise, measurable, and definable sensory data out of account; all the other concepts on which we base our lives are no more than congealed metaphors [erstarren gelassene Gleichnisse]. (626)
Here Musil unites an attack on the surface beauty of most poetry with his brilliant, earlier critique of empiricism, suggesting that they both come out of an adherence to an underlying conceptual structure that is taken for granted (selbstverständlich):
The relationship between youth and empiricism seemed to him profoundly natural, and youth’s inclination to want to experience everything itself, and to expect the most surprising discoveries, moved him to see this as the philosophy appropriate to youth. But from the assertion that awaiting the rising of the sun in the east every day merely has the security of a habit, it is only a step to asserting that all human knowledge is felt only subjectively and at a particular time, or is indeed the presumption of a class or race, all of which has gradually become evident in European intellectual history. Apparently one should also add that approximately since the days of our great-grandfather’s, a new kind of individuality has made its appearance: this is the type of the empirical man or empiricist, of the person of experience who has become such a familiar open question, the person who knows how to make from a hundred of his own experiences a thousand new ones, which, however, always remain within the same circle of experience, and who has by this means created the gigantic, profitable-in-appearance monotony of the technical age. Empiricism as a philosophy might be taken as the philosophical children’s disease of this type of person.(1351)
In particulars lie generalities. As Grill puts it, “Newly experienced sensations are often all too quickly congealed into an all-too-limited circle of established beliefs” (Grill 84). This applies equally to the empiricist philosopher and the expressionist poet. Musil and Proust may speak of typologies explicitly, but they openly question them, while poets of specificity sneak the archetypes in under the guise of “representing” particulars.
Consequently, I think Grill is absolutely correct when she argues that Musil’s circular structures “suggest that all experience is metaphorical,” and that this is crucial to understanding Musil’s project. She has convinced me that Musil was as keen an observer of the contingent metaphorical structure of life as Ernst Cassirer or Hans Blumenberg.
Musil, however, also possessed a lyricism to attempt to bring out his themes in a literary fashion. For example, this passage from the “Valerie” section:
Ulrich had stumbled into the heart of the world. From there it was as far to his beloved as to the blade of grass beside his feet or to the distant tree on the sky-bare heights across the valley. Strange thought: space, the nibbling in little bites, distance distanced, replaces the warm husk and leaves behind a cadaver; but here in the heart they were no longer themselves, everything was connected with him the way the foot is no farther from the heart than the breast is. Ulrich also no longer felt that the landscape in which he was lying was outside him; nor was it within; that had dissolved or permeated everything. The sudden idea that something might happen to him while he was lying there—a wild animal, a robber, some brute—was almost impossible of accomplishment, as far away as being frightened by one’s own thoughts. / Later: Nature itself is hostile. The observer need only go into the water. / And the beloved, the person for whose sake he was experiencing all this, was no closer than some unknown traveler would have been. Sometimes his thoughts strained like eyes to imagine what they might do now, but then he gave it up again, for when he tried to approach her this way it was as if through alien territory that he imagined her in her surroundings, while he was linked to her in subterranean fashion in a quite different way. (1443)
Life is nur ein Gleichnis,except that the nur is inaccurate: Gleichnis is all we have and is far more malleable than it appears day to day. The Other Condition suspends the seeming necessity and allows for greater play (in the sense of Kant’s Third Critique) with the nominal components of existence.
Yet because the construction of the world-as-metaphor is a communal one, this is not something that can be accomplished alone. Hence the need for the union that Ulrich seeks with Agathe. I think that Grill understates the necessity for intersubjectivity in the Other Condition as conceived by Musil, the need for it to exist between people in a fundamentally communal way. I think that that is the problem that Musil is addressing in this passage, where Ulrich, writing in his diary, seems to be losing track of himself:
But I also fear that there’s a vicious circle lurking in everything that I think I have understood up to now. For I don’t want—if I now go back to my original motif—to leave the state of “significance,” and if I try to tell myself what significance is, all I come back to again and again is the state I’m in, which is that I don’t want to leave a specific state! So I don’t believe I’m looking at the truth, but what I experience is certainly not simply subjective, either; it reaches out for the truth with a thousand arms.
The Romantic posture died because the sole Romantic dreamer had nothing binding him or her to “our” world, nor even a way to pick himself or herself out once other minds were absent. For Musil, it seems, one other person might be enough. Agathe provides the needed reference point.
What of, then, the admissions of failure, such as this heartbreaking passage?
The experiment they had undertaken to shape their relationship had failed irrevocably. Vast regions of emotions and fancies that had endowed many things with a perennial splendor of unknown origin, like an opalizing sky, were now desolate. Ulrich’s mind had dried out like soil beneath which the layers that conduct the moisture that nourishes all green things had disappeared. If what he had been forced to wish for was folly—and the exhaustion with which he thought of it admitted of no doubts about that!—then what had been best in his life had always been folly: the shimmer of thinking, the breath of presumption, those tender messengers of a better home that flutter among the things of the world. Nothing remained but to become reasonable; he had to do violence to his nature and apparently submit it to a school that was not only hard but also by definition boring. He did not want to think himself born to be an idler, but would now be one if he did not soon begin to make order out of the consequences of this failure. But when he checked them over, his whole being rebelled against them, and when his being rebelled against them, he longed for Agathe; that happened without exuberance, but still as one yearns for a fellow sufferer when he is the only one with whom one can be intimate.
Grill argues, I think convincingly, that this does not make permanent the failure nor exclude a greater success. If the exploration of possibility does not encompass the imagining and inhabiting of the possibility of total and utter failure, and the accompanying despair, then the project will become complacent and rigid.
This does make for a somewhat politically and socially restricted attitude, however, and Grill explicitly states her belief that Musil’s position was one of a guardian of possibility and liberality, not as an activist or polemicist. I think this is generally true, though with slight restrictions. I do believe that Musil held fast to the worth of his method, and that while he was open to revision and modification of that method, he did not doubt the fundamental correctness of the application of reason and aesthetic disinterest to every aspect of life. That is to say, the Other Condition was to be malleable to the point of imagining total failure, but not to the point of utter self-annihilation.
And the method is more pragmatic than it is Romantic, depending on an alternating (or circular) pattern of engaging and disengaging, accepting and questioning. In a key section, Grill discusses Musil’s depiction of the two types of metaphors, “Nebel” (mist) and “Erstarren” (petrifact), and concludes:
Neither stone nor mist, therefore, is alone the true element, but rather, they work together to satisfy our shifting human instincts and desires for oscillation–oscillation between freedom and necessity, or perhaps freedom and an artificially imposed set of limitations. (Grill 69)
This is because even in the freedom of constructing new misty metaphors, the process is necessarily selective, as Grill stresses. A metaphor’s value lies not only in its highlighting connections between disparate concepts, but in leaving the possibility open for difference. It is this balance that makes a metaphor irreducible (and here the connection with Blumenberg’s metaphorology is strongest).
Now, as he realized that this failure to achieve integration had lately been apparent to him in what he called the strained relationship between.literature and reality, metaphor and truth, it flashed on Ulrich how much more all this signified than any random insight that turned up in one of those meandering conversations he had recently engaged in with the most inappropriate people. These two basic strategies, the figurative and the unequivocal, have been distinguishable ever since the beginnings of humanity. Single-mindedness is the law of all waking thought and action, as much present in a compelling logical conclusion as in the mind of the blackmailer who enforces his will on his victim step by step, and it arises from the exigencies of life where only the single-minded control of circumstances can avert disaster. Metaphor, by contrast, is like the image that fuses several meanings in a dream; it is the gliding logic of the soul, corresponding to the way things relate to each other in the intuitions of art and religion. But even what there is in life of common likes and dislikes, accord and rejection, admiration, subordination, leadership, imitation, and their opposites, the many ways man relates to himself and to nature, which are not yet and perhaps never will be purely objective, cannot be understood in other than metaphoric or figurative terms, No doubt what is called the higher humanism is only the effort to fuse together these two great halves of life, metaphor and truth, once they have been carefully distinguished from each other. But once one has distinguished everything in a metaphor that might be true from what is mere froth, one usually has gained a little truth, but at the cost of destroying the whole value of the metaphor. The extraction of the truth may have been an inescapable part of our intellectual evolution, but it has had the same·effect of boiling down a liquid to thicken it, while the really vital juices and elements escape in a cloud of steam. It is often hard, nowadays, to avoid the impression that the concepts and the rules of the moral life are only metaphors that have been boiled to death, with the revolting greasy kitchen vapors of humanism billowing around the corpses, and if a digression is permissible at this point, it can only be this, that one consequence of this impression that vaguely hovers over everything is what our era should frankly call its reverence for all that is common. For when we lie nowadays it is not so much out of weakness as out of a conviction that a man cannot prevail in life unless he is able to lie. We resort to violence because, after much long and futile talk, the simplicity of violence is an immense relief. People band together in organizations because obedience to orders enables them to do things they have long been incapable of doing out of personal conviction, and the hostility between organizations allows them to engage in the unending reciprocity of blood feuds, while love would all too soon put everyone to sleep. This has much less to do with the question of whether men are good or evil than with the fact that they have lost their sense of high and low. Another paradoxical result of this disorientation is the vulgar profusion of intellectual jewelry with which our mistrust of the intellect decks itself out. The coupling of a “philosophy” with activities that can absorb only a very small part of it, such as politics; the general obsession with turning every viewpoint into a standpoint and regarding every standpoint as a viewpoint; the need. of every kind of fanatic to keep reiterating the one idea that has ever come his way, like an image multiplied to infinity in a hall of mirrors: all these wide- spread phenomena, far from signifying a movement toward humanism, as they wish to do, in fact represent its failure, All in all, it seems that what needs to be excised from human relations is the soul that finds itself misplaced in them. The moment Ulrich realized this he felt that his life, if it had any meaning at all, demonstrated the presence of the two fundamental spheres of human existence in their separateness and in their way of working against each other. Clearly, people like himself were already being born, but they were isolated, and in his isolation he was incapable of bringing together again what had fallen apart. He had no illusions about the value of his philosophical experimentation; even if he observed the strictest logical consistency in linking thought to thought, the effect was still one of piling one ladder upon another, so that the topmost rungs teetered far above the level of natural life. He contemplated this with revulsion.(647)
This passage, Grill points out, provides a key piece of anticipatory groundwork for what Ulrich and Agathe will embark upon many hundreds of pages later. The greater emphasis on concrete political reality obscures the greater significance that Musil is juggling these concepts metaphorically in increasing degree, and that the motion toward the Other Condition is already proceeding. For illuminating the join between the earlier and latter sections of The Man Without Qualities in a way that gives real shape to the whole, Grill’s book is tremendous.
This series of lectures, Eight Philosophers of the Italian Renaissance (1964), contextualizes Renaissance humanism as well as any account I’ve read.
For those like me whose philosophical education jumped from Aristotle to Descartes (with very brief stops at Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas), the philosophy of Italian Renaissance humanism is very hard to pin down. Paul Oskar Kristeller was one of its greatest scholars (Eugenio Garin is the other one I’m familiar with), and the erudition on display here is fairly intimidating. So I offer a short summary and an outline of what I took to be the most remarkable points.
Existing outside the clerical Church structures of scholasticism, the humanists began with an emphasis on Latin literature and scholarship, but also returned to the Greek origins of many Roman and Christian ideas.
The eight writers covered are very heterogeneous. Even where they agree, there’s a looseness to their thinking that creates significant variations. Partly this is because rigorous logical philosophical thinking recedes in favor of a more rhetorical, literary approach. Eloquence and persuasion were central values.
Yet that shift away logic was emancipatory; the rigorous logic left the scholastics more trapped within medieval theological conceptions. (Though according to Hans Blumenberg, cracks were already showing up in scholastic thought, though in more subtle form.) Or perhaps it was simply a result of their not being of the Church.
It did not oppose religion or theology on its own ground; rather, it created a large body of secular learning, literature, and thought that coexisted with theology and religion.
These Renaissance philosophers represent a transitional stage from medievalism to modernity, and one in which religion still inflected studies outside the Church. Unlike Catholic scholasticism, with its rigorously focused logic deriving strictly from God and first principles, Kristeller indicates that humanism, however tentatively, made steps toward secularism through a greater separation from religion.
In the absence of empirical science and religious freedom, humanism did not find any real, final autonomy, which had to wait until Bacon, Descartes, Newton, Leibniz, and others had firmly declared for a secular science. But that isn’t to say that they weren’t thinkers who hold great interest. They brought a greater secular aspect to philosophy than the mostly Aristotelian Scholastics. (The more adventurous thought of Islamic and Jewish scholars, above all Averroes, clearly had a strong influence, but Kristeller only touches on this briefly for reasons of space.)
For Kristeller these thinkers represent first, the liveliness of the continuous transformation of philosophical ideas in a somewhat progressive development, and second, the urge toward freedom of thought and expression, which Kristeller appears to prize above all else.
So here is a summary of the eight covered and their general place, at least in Kristeller’s account.
Latin writings were as significant as his Italian poems through the Renaissance.
Pre-humanist, but the central precursor.
Preferred Plato to Aristotle, against medieval tradition, but esteemed and promoted both of them in the original Greek.
Lover of solitude, and melancholic. Uses acidia not to mean sloth, but “suffering mixed with pleasure”: melancholy.
“Petrarch contributes to secularizing not only the content of learning, but also the personal attitude of the scholar and writer; unlike his succssors, however, he hesitates, since he is held back by religious scruples.”
Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457)
Sets tone for humanists in focusing on moral and human problems and the place of humanity in the universe.
Gives up on question of free will vs. divine predestination, suggesting humility and avoiding curiosity about unanswerable questions.
In general, subordinates philosophy to faith.
“On Pleasure” is a dialogue pitting a Stoic against an Epicurean and a Christian. The Epicurean easily wins by claiming that virtue needs to be useful, not just for its own sake, and the Christian then triumphs by saying that virtue is useful for the sake of future happiness.
Unusually oriented around the physical and bodily, stressing haeven’s corporeal pleasures as greater than anything on earth (though the intellectual pleasures are greater still).
A “vulgarized Epicureanism,” a “Christian Epicureanism.”
Borrows from and praises Quintillian heavily: “a typical humanist tendency to subordinate logic to rhetoric” (contra scholasticism). Combining simplified logic with rhetoric and grammar.
Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499)
Founder of the Florentine Renaissance Platonist school, and a dedicated Platonist, though an even more dedicated Christian.
Believes Platonism and Christianity are in harmony with one another as the ultimate philosophy and religion, respectively.
First to give a detailed cosmological account to attempt to place humanity in it, revising the neo-Platonic account of Plotinus to place the human soul at the center/mean of everything.
Knowledge of God is the ultimate goal of human life and is attainable in this life by a few fortunate souls.
No real ethics. “His whole moral doctrine…may be said to be a reduction of all specific rules to a praise of the contemplative life.”
Ultimate concern is with the necessity of immortality for humanity’s purpose–the “contemplative ascent toward God”–to be fulfilled (in the next world).
Love is the basic principle of action. Love between humans is mere preparation for love of God.
Gives a nascent account of natural religion, believing it innate to humanity.
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494)
Prodigious and aggressively syncretist: attempted to show that every philosophy was in harmony with one another, and fundamentally in harmony with the ultimate truth of Christianity.
Believed “all known philosophical and theological schools and thinkers contained certain true and valid insights that were compatible with each other and hence deserved to be restated and defended.”
Though a Florentine Platonist, his major goal was to reconcile Plato and Aristotle, and then reconcile that with whatever else he could find.
Less antagonistic toward scholastic thought and attempts to absorb its insights.
Studied Jewish and Islamic thought extensively, particularly Cabala, whose numerical “interpretation” methods he utilized.
Elevates humanity to a unique, esteemed place in the cosmos, outside the hierarchy of angelic, celestial, and elementary.
Attacked astrology stridently, but still accepted magic; any naturalism he evinces is not in fact scientific.
Pietro Pomponazzi (1462-1525)
Seemingly Kristeller’s favorite, and not without reason. He tries hard to separate theology and philosophy while retaining their coexistence. A more radical empiricist than any preceding thinker.
Representative of a naturalistic, non-theological “secular Aristotelianism” (“Paduan Averroeism”, though its members were not all studying Aristotle via Islamic Aristotelian Averroes). [contra Ficino]
Stylistically far closer to scholastic prolixity rather than humanist elegance.
Treatise on Immortality endorses the idea that intellect is not separable from the body, though the soul is immortal “in some respects.”
Emphasis on practical reason: Rejects Aristotle’s (and others’) endorsement of contemplation. “The end of human life [is] moral virtue because this end is attainable by all human beings without exception.”
Virtue should be sought without expectation to a reward. Concludes that “those who assert that the soul is mortal seem to preserve the notion of virtue much better than those who assert that it is immortal.”
“Virtue is its own reward, and vice its own punishment”: morality is not dependent on religion. [contra Valla]
Immortality of the soul cannot be known and must be taken on faith alone.
Attempted “to draw a clear line of distinction between reason and faith, philosophy and theology, and to establish the autonomy of reason and philosophy within their own domain, unassailable by the demands of faith, or of any claim not based on reason.”
Kristeller editorializes: “Our life and our person are not made of reason alone, and the more we are aware of this fact, the better it is. But reason is the only tool we have for bringing a ray of light and order into the great, dark chaos from which we were born, into which we shall return, and by which we are surrounded on all sides.”
Bernardino Telesio (1509-1588)
The first of the primarily naturalist philosophers, distinct from both the Platonists and Aristotelians, more secular and modern. Bacon called him “The first of the moderns.”
Attempts to give an account of nature independent of an established tradition and authority. Their lack of success is in failing to find a method and not recognizing the importance of mathematics.
Argues against Aristotle on several points: asserts that time is not dependent on motion, and that empty space is possible. A move toward Newton.
Kristeller suspects he originated the use of “spatium” in place of “locus” is an indicator of this move toward what Newton would codify, and for treating space and time as complementary fundamental concepts.
Naturalistic account of humans: spirit is ruled by principle of self-preservation. Pleasure and pain are primary, but virtue serves self-preservation rather than pleasure.
Francesco Patrizi (1529-1597)
Like Telesio, neither Aristotelian nor Platonist. Likewise, presents a naturalistic, systematic picture of the universe.
Literary, classical, and mathematical. Influenced by Platonism and humanism more than Aristotelianism, partly owing to his semi-Platonic mathematical orientation.
His Poetics is hostile to Aristotle (whom Kristeller says is the basis for the “Chicago school of criticism” even today), yet did much helpful scholarship on Aristotle.
Nova de universis philosophia is his cosmology. Includes a bizarre analysis of physical and metaphysical properties of light: “light occupies an intermediary place between divine, incorporeal things and corporeal objects.” “Light is said to be infinite, and may be considered incorporeal in its source, while it is both incorporeal and corporeal when considered in its state of irradiation, and thus mediates between God and the corporeal world.” (See Hans Blumenberg again for light as an “absolute metaphor.”)
Mathematics and especially geometry is prior to physics. Space itself is “both a body and incorporeal.”
Abandons heavenly spheres, which even Copernicus had retained. Stars move freely in the aether, anticipating Tycho Brahe.
Very transitional: still pre-scientific, but mostly free of occultism.
Giordano Bruno (1548-1600)
By far the most radical and heretical, and was burnt at the stake as a result. “A martyr, not so much of modern science, but rather of his convictions and of philosophical liberty.”
First major philosopher to adopt Copernican system, first to dispose of celestial-earthly dichotomy and hierarchical view of nature. Strongly attacks Aristotle.
Opposes vulgar love to “heroic love.” “Heroic love has a divine object, and leads the soul in a gradual ascent from the sense world through intelligible objects toward God. The union with God, which is the ultimate and infinite goal of our will and intellect, cannot be attained during the present life. Hence heroic love is for the philosopher a continuous torment. But it derives an inherent nobility and dignity from its ultimate goal, which will be reached after death.”
Reverses Aristotle’s conception of substance: God is a substance, and His effects are accidents. Anticipates Spinoza this way, but “no tangible evidence” Spinoza knew of Bruno.
A universal and ubiquitous “world soul” as “the constituent formal principle of the world, just as matter is its constituent material principle.”
Form and matter are perpetual “and mutually determine each other, whereas the bodies composed of form and matter are perishable, and must be regarded not as substances but as accidents.”
“In God, form and matter, actuality and potentiality, coincide.”
Ergo, universe is “one and infinite.”
Despite this pantheistic, immanentistic strain, Kristeller doubts Bruno sought to be an extreme pantheist or naturalist, retaining some non-pantheistic aspects of his predecessors.
Cosmology is parallel to metaphysics, depicting finite worlds contained within an infinite universe. (Copernicus had not declared the infinity of the universe. This is Bruno’s invention via Lucretius.)
Stresses Spinozan parallels: “Aside from many other differences, it was quite natural for Spinoza to replace Bruno’s two basic principles, form (or soul) and matter, which have a Neoplatonic, and if you wish an Aristotelian, origin, with the attributes of thought and extension, which are derived from teh system of Descartes.”
Obviously Bruno is quite far from Petrarch, and Kristeller’s portrayal of the philosophical momentum is quite effective. Even in contemporaneous thinkers, there are great differences between logic and rhetoric, nature and theology, rationalism and empiricism, scholasticism and rhetoric.
It is yet another example of the danger in reductively classifying the thought of any given period, as people are wont to do with rationalism, empiricism, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, modernism, and so on and on, sometimes to praise them, sometimes to pillory them.
In words that anticipate many poststructuralist and cultural studies thinkers, he writes:
I find that much lip service is being padi to the humanities in academic circles, but that they are notably absent from our public discussion, which, when it rises above purely practical matters, seems to leave us with nothing but the bleak alternative between science and religion. I am also dismayed when I hear and read that our heritage, aside from our political institutions, consists solely of the scientific method and the Judaeo-Christian tradition, as if we owed nothing to Greek philosophy, or to other aspects of ancient, medieval, or early modern civilization, or as if the “Judaeo-Christian tradition” itself, a very complex and diversified tradition, did not derive many of its elements from Greek philosophy, as most thoughtful and informed students of religion and theology are quite ready to admit.
And of course this extends to Islamic philosophy, Jewish philosophy, and many other traditions and subtraditions which go mostly ignored but which have all contributed their share.