Gracq’s somewhat decadent, very symbolist French novel from 1938 reads like a cross between Borges and Cocteau.
In telling the story of a trio of youths, two men and one women, who live out an erotic and violent fever dream in a remote house in the middle of a large wood, Gracq remains so abstract, so image-oriented and philosophical, avoiding all discourse direct and indirect, that Chateau d’Argol sometimes comes off as the schema for a much larger Romantic work of feeling and insanity. It is short and relentless.
Its unique strengths and weaknesses are best shown by this quote:
As though borne along by the web of an exalting music, his limbs seemed the prisoners of the fatal laws of a number–although a primary one in every respect–and his step majestic beyond all measure and at every moment plainly oriented, seemed to Albert the materialization, shorn for the first time of all kinds of grotesquely aesthetic veils, of what Kant has caused, mysteriously enough, purposiveness without purpose.
The old translation, by Louise Varese, reads like it was translated extremely closely from the French, as French sentence structure seems evident everywhere. This produces a jarring awkwardness that dampens the spell Gracq is trying to cast, but the consistency of the weird style does eventually create a certain otherworldliness of its own.
Ernst Cassirer was rather evidently a genius, and Michael Friedman’s summary of his magnum opus The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms makes me want to go through his work comprehensively, as soon as I have a large chunk of time. Part of the reason being just so that I can determine whether or not I agree with Friedman’s assessment. Also to do: compare and contrast with C.S. Peirce and Wilfrid Sellars, as well as his most obvious philosophical successor Hans Blumenberg.
Just as the genetic conception of knowledge is primarily oriented towards the “fact of science” and, accordingly, takes the historical development of scientific knowledge as its ultimate given datum, the philosophy of symbolic forms is oriented towards the much more general “fact of culture” and thus takes the history of human culture as a whole as its ultimate given datum.
The conception of human beings as most fundamentally “symbolic animals,” interposing systems of signs or systems of expression between themselves and the world, then becomes the guiding philosophical motif for elucidating the corresponding conditions of possibility for the “fact of culture” in all of its richness and diversity.
Characteristic of the philosophy of symbolic forms is a concern for the more “primitive” forms of world-presentation underlying the “higher” and more sophisticated cultural forms — a concern for the ordinary perceptual awareness of the world expressed primarily in natural language, and, above all, for the mythical view of the world lying at the most primitive level of all.
For Cassirer, these more primitive manifestations of “symbolic meaning” now have an independent status and foundational role that is quite incompatible with both Marburg neo-Kantianism and Kant’s original philosophical conception. In particular, they lie at a deeper, autonomous level of spiritual life which then gives rise to the more sophisticated forms by a dialectical developmental process.
From mythical thought, religion and art develop; from natural language, theoretical science develops. It is precisely here that Cassirer appeals to “romantic” philosophical tendencies lying outside the Kantian and neo-Kantian tradition, deploys an historical dialectic self-consciously derived from Hegel, and comes to terms with the contemporary Lebensphilosophie of Wilhelm Dilthey, Henri Bergson, Max Scheler, and Georg Simmel — as well as with the closely related philosophy of Martin Heidegger.
The most basic and primitive type of symbolic meaning is expressive meaning, the product of what Cassirer calls the expressive function (Ausdrucksfunktion) of thought, which is concerned with the experience of events in the world around us as charged with affective and emotional significance, as desirable or hateful, comforting or threatening. It is this type of meaning that underlies mythical consciousness, for Cassirer, and which explains its most distinctive feature, namely, its total disregard for the distinction between appearance and reality. …
What Cassirer calls representative symbolic meaning, a product of the representative function (Darstellungsfunktion) of thought, then has the task of precipitating out of the original mythical flux of “physiognomic” characters a world of stable and enduring substances, distinguishable and reidentifiable as such. …
We are now able to distinguish the enduring thing-substance, on the one side, from its variable manifestations from different points of view and on different occasions, on the other, and we thereby arrive at a new fundamental distinction between appearance and reality. This distinction is then expressed in its most developed form, for Cassirer, in the linguistic notion of propositional truth and thus in the propositional copula. Here the Kantian “categories” of space, time, substance, and causality take on a distinctively intuitive or “presentational” configuration.
The collapse of appearance and reality at the primitive level also echoes some schools of Buddhist philosophy that take a quasi-skeptical attitude toward ontology, e.g. Madhyamaka. Can the Kantian a priori and general categorical structure bear this sort of weight?
Communism = Marxism = Leninism = socialism = regulated market = welfare state = liberalism = Keynesianism = Great Society = etc.
These are some of the ones that I think about most often, ones that are taken seriously by some people I respect. (I’m not going to list “Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States” or “Edward Said was a Muslim fundamentalist,” because I’m lucky enough not to deal with people who believe these things, and I’m trying to list these in order to change people’s minds, which would be impossible with anyone who believes those two.)
These ideas are frequently debunked or contested, but still I frequently hear them stated with blithe certainty. Even when the case is debatable, as with the French Revolution, there is such exaggeration of its singular importance that no event short of the Second Coming could fulfill the importance assigned to it.
Oversimplification is the main sin here. Two forms of it present here are origination and conflation. Origination states that a certain idea, concept, or practice began with a certain person or people at a certain time and place, and simply did not exist before that. Conflation simply packages together terms like “subjectivity” and “selfhood” and “rationalism,” so that an attack on one serves as an attack on all of them. And with both of these these goes Inflation, where the key idea/event/person is elevated to such singular importance that it becomes an excuse not to search for any lesser-known ideas/events/people that might serve to complicate matters.
While discussing Derrida’s critique of Husserl, I criticized Derrida for invoking a simplistic, received view of language, and then tarring huge swaths of the linguistic and philosophical tradition with it. I’m far from the first to make that critique, and he’s far from the first to make that move. It’s a variation on the straw man argument. Via conflation, the straw man is used against many opponents, not just one. (It’s far more efficient.) By finding the same straw man in thinker after thinker, entire traditions can be invalidated and subverted, so much the better to make the critique appear more sweeping, profound, and revolutionary. Derrida was taking after Heidegger here, who was the absolute master of this technique. (Presence is always present.)
But such straw man arguments aren’t necessarily used for critiques. The ideas above are used both positively and negatively. They are pieces of conceptual history that seem so widely accepted that in a hundred years, people may have trouble figuring out that these assumptions underlay so much contemporary writing. People often no longer bother to explain them or even to state them. As an analogy, Frederick Beiser has spent the last 20 years attempting to explain the impact of Jacobi and Lessing’s “Pantheism controversy” on the philosophy of Kant and most everyone else in that period. It was a huge imbroglio at the time, but people like me read Kant with no knowledge of it.
I’ll close with some wise words about conceptual generalization and simplification from Albert O. Hirschman, who inspired this post. Here he is remarking on Marx’s famous “history repeats, first as tragedy, then as farce” remark:
This is the second time I find a well-known generalization or aphorism about the history of events to be more nearly correct when applied to the history of ideas. The first time was with regard to Santayana’s famous dictum that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Generalizing on the firm basis of this sample of two, I am tempted to formulate a “metalaw”: historical “laws” that are supposed to provide insights into the history of events come truly into their own in the history of ideas.
Does anyone else have particular favorite received ideas they’d like to give?
13 August 1910. Before I went to sleep, one or two other things occurred to me about my way of working (in the novellas). What matters to me is the passionate energy of the idea. In cases where I am not able to work out some special idea, the work immediately begins to bore me; this is true for almost every single paragraph. Now why is it that this thinking, which after all is not aiming at any kind of scientific validity but only a certain individual truth, cannot move at a quicker pace? I found that in the reflective element of art there is a dissipative momentum–here I only have to think of the reflections that I have sometimes written down in parallel with my drafts. The idea immediately moves onward in all directions, the notions go on growing outward on all sides, the result is a disorganized, amorphous complex. In the case of exact thinking, however, the idea is tied up, delineated, articulated, by means of the goal of the work, the way it is limited to what can be proven, the separation into probable and certain, etc., in short, by means of the methodological demands that stem from the object of investigation. In art, this process of selection is missing. Its place is taken by the selection of the images, the style, the mood of the whole.
I was annoyed because it is often the case with me that the rhetorical precedes the reflective. I am forced to continue the inventive process after the style of images that are already there and this is often not possible without some amputation of the core of what one would like to say. I am only able at first to develop the thought-material for a piece of work to a point that is relatively close by, then it dissolves in my hands. Then the moment arrives when the work in hand is receiving the final polish, the style has reached maturity, etc. It is only now that, both gripped and constrained by what is now in a finished state, I am able to “think” on further.
There are two opposing forces that one has to set in balance–the dissipating, formless one from the realm of the idea and the restrictive, somewhat empty and formal one relating to the rhetorical invention.
Tying this together to achieve the greatest degree of intellectual compression, this final stepping beyond the work in accordance with the needs of the intellectual who abjures everything that is mere words, this intellectual activity comes only after these two stages. Here the effect of the understanding is astringent, but here it is directed toward the unity of form and content that is already present whereas, whenever it is merely a question of thinking out the content, it dissipates. (Even in cases where one already has the basic idea around which everything is to be grouped, as long as the capacity for creating images is missing it will not work; if one restricts oneself in the extensive mode one goes to far in the intensive mode and one becomes amorphous.)
Diaries, p. 117
Note, contra Kant, ideas are formless content, rhetoric and language are form. I.e., if categories could be expressed we’re already expressing more than categories. This seems to be a German hermeneutic motif, the unspeakable but absolute idea beneath the text; Gadamer uses it too. Or to put it another way:
Jede Philosophie, die unsere Möglichkeiten des Zugangs zur Wirklichkeit von der Sprache abhängig macht – nicht nur vom Sprachbesitz überhaupt, sondern vom dem einer bestimmten, faktisch gewordenen Sprache, diese also als das Gesamtsystem aller Differenzierungen und Sichtweisen in der Erfahrung definiert, macht das Unsagbare auch im Sinne des noch nicht Gesagten heimatlos. Zugleich macht sie den Verdacht auf einen unüberwindbaren Relativismus der Alltagssprachen, der Nationalsprachen oder auch der wissenschaftlichen Sprachen unausweichlich. Nichts ist uns gegeben, was uns nicht durch Sprache vorgegeben wäre. Ist das befriedigend? Oder müssen wir nicht auch davon sprechen, daß die Sprache der Erweiterung unserer Erfahrung als der Einengung des Unsagbaren nachzukommen hat? Davon sprechen, daß sie umgebildet werden muß in bezug auf Leistungen, die im Sprachbestand noch nicht faktisch vorgegeben waren?
Blumenberg, Theory of an Unconceptuality, posth. 2008
Speech then is not at all an impediment; it is not, as one might say, a brake on the mind but rather a second wheel running along parallel on the same axle.
That a certain excitement of the intelligence is necessary even to revivify ideas we have already had is amply demonstrated whenever open-minded and knowledgeable people are being examined and without any preamble are asked such questions as: What is the state? or: What is property? Things of that kind. If these young people had been in company and for a while the subject of conversation had been the state or property they would by a process of comparison, discrimination and summary perhaps with ease have arrived at the definition. But being wholly deprived of any such preparation they are seen to falter and only an obtuse examiner will conclude from this that they do not know. For it is not we who know things but pre-eminently a certain condition of ours which knows. Only very commonplace intellects, people who yesterday learned by heart what the state is and today have forgotten it again, will have their answers pat in an examination…. And if such young people, even the most ignorant among them, do most often achieve good marks this is because the minds of the examiners, if the examination is public, are themselves too embarrassed to deliver a true judgement. For not only do they themselves feel the indecency of the whole procedure: we should be ashamed to ask a person to tip out the contents of his purse before us, let alone his soul: but their own intelligences come under dangerous appraisal and they may count themselves lucky if they manage to leave the examination without having revealed more shameful weaknesses than the young finalist himself whom they have been examining.
Heinrich von Kleist, “On the Gradual Production of Thoughts Whilst Speaking” (tr. Constantine)
This essay is fundamentally about misspeaking, and how the brain and the mouth may not each be able to do the work of the other, or else may have to do the work of the other. There is little value assigned to misspeaking because it only adds to the effort the listener has to make in understanding the speaker, and no one likes making additional effort. But because it points out those clashes between the two tracks of speech and thought, I would rather have stumbling speaking than polished oratory.
I remember a discussion I had many years ago with a very well put-together student, and I asked him how he was able to so easily hold forth on any number of topics. He said that he remembered entire paragraphs of content, verbatim, about various subjects that interested him, and so it was just a matter of recalling and speaking them. I envied this talent because, as I explained to him, I never repeated myself verbatim. When speaking, I always started from some abstract, non-verbal items of cognition and rederived the words on the spot, and this extra effort required always caused me to slip up a bit, always caused me a bit of uncertainty that no doubt revealed me as a neophyte. Now I wonder if this tendency wasn’t/isn’t in fact due to what I think must be the horrible boredom of memorizing actual text rather than much more abbreviated and efficient concepts.
So misspeaking to me is a sign of the play (as Kant would say) between concept and language and between speaking and thinking, as opposed to the dead recitation of words that people have memorized so that they no longer remember the actual meaning or many possible meanings. Or as Wilhelm von Humboldt puts it:
In speech the energy of the mind breaks a path through the lips, but its product returns through our own ears. The idea is translated into true objectivity without being withdrawn from subjectivity. Only language can do this; and without this translation into an objectivity which returns to the subject–and such a translation occurs, even though silently, whenever language is at work–the formation of concepts and hence all true thought would be impossible…For language cannot be regarded as a substance which is present, which can be apprehended as a whole or gradually communicated; it is something which must be constantly produced, and while the laws according to which it is produced are defined, its scope and in a certain sense the manner in which it is produced remains indeterminate…Just as the particular sound mediates between the object and the man, so the whole language mediates between him and the nature that works upon him from within and without. He surrounds himself with a world of sounds in order to assimilate and elaborate the world of objects.
Forget the indeterminacy and one half has gone missing. Most writing and speech is dead.
Update: An apropos reblog of a short Kafka parable:
In my case one can imagine three circles, an innermost one, A, then B, then C. The core A explains to B why this man must torment and mistrust himself, why he must renounce, why he must not live. (Was not Diogenes, for instance, gravely ill in this sense? Which of us would not have been happy under Alexander’s radiant gaze? But Diogenes frantically begged him to move out of the way of the sun. That tub was full of ghosts.) To C, the active man, no explanations are given, he is merely terribly ordered about by B; C acts under the most severe pressure, but more in fear that in understanding, he trusts, he believes, that A explains everything to B and that B has understood everything rightly.