Saturday, September 20, 2014

An annoying development

Currently I am being bombarded by robotic comments from escort services in India.  There are too many of these to delete right now.  Readers should simply ignore them.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


In my youth, aeons ago, the word liberal meant "generous; understanding; open-minded; tolerant." When Lionel Trilling opined that liberalism incarnated what was best about American culture, I agreed.
That is no longer so clear to me, especially when I am bombarded by memes from "Being Liberal" and other such cheer-leading sites. In their unending lambasting of conservatives, generosity and tolerance no longer seem so evident. The content of many of these postings demonstrates confirmation bias - that is, an assemblage of facts and factoids that tend to suggest that the liberal view of the world is simply the way the world is.
Of course similar things can be said about conservative postings - and worse. But I do not see many of these. To be sure, I could immerse myself in Fox News, but that, to judge by what little I have seen, is not a useful deployment of my time.
I take no joy in seconding this observation, but it appears that the Republicans have a good chance of taking over the Senate in the forthcoming election. It is a little late to change tactics now, but couldn't some of these conservative voters eventually be pried away by an appeal to reason, instead of the insults that are commonly dished up - and eagerly devoured by the the base - on "Being Liberal" and other such sites?

Monday, September 08, 2014

Heraclitus (from a work in progress)

The witty, often paradoxical utterances of Heraclitus are both beguiling and frustrating.  It is tempting to solve the problem by pronouncing the two-word formula: “everything flows” (panta rei).  This simplification goes back to Plato (Cratylus 402a), who was not sympathetic to Heraclitus.  Those two little words have echoed down the centuries, surviving even now as a kind of Twitter condensation of the Greek thinker’s message. 
Plato and Aristotle charged that Heraclitus’ thought was confused and incoherent.  For he held that (1) everything is constantly changing and (2) opposite things are identical, so that (3) everything is and is not at the same time. In this way, the principles of universal flux and the identity of opposites defy the dictates of the law of non-contradiction.  Only in modern times have scholars been able to free themselves of these animadversions, recognizing the true grandeur of the thought of Heraclitus.
It is generally believed that Heraclitus wrote a single book which supplied the fragments available to us.  According to Diels-Kranz there are 126 authentic fragments.  In his edition Miroslav Marcovich recognizes 122.  Recent papyrus discoveries have added some material, mostly duplications of items already known,  In this discussion I use the traditional Diels-Kranz numbers for citation.
Throughout the surviving passages Heracliitus shows an unwavering self-confidence, bordering on arrogance and even megalomania.  Although all human beings are immersed in the Process (or Logos), very few have the wit to understand  or even recognize thieir situation.  Heraclitus shows disdain for such predecessors as Hesiod, Pythagoras, and Xenocrates.  In their ignorance they are scarcely better than the common herd.  There are social consequences as well, as when he recommends that the adults of his naive Ephesus should simply hang themselves, so miserable is the mess they have made of the city’s affiairs.
Heraclitus’ utterances about opposites rank among his most seminal and challenging observations  First are contraries that stem from different points of view (perspectivism).  For example, “[t[he sea is the purest and most polluted water; to fishes drinkable and bringing safety; to humans undrinkable and destructive.” (fr. 61)  Or, “[t]he most beautiful of apes is ugly in comparison with the human race.” (fr. 82)
Then there are qualities that occur simultaneously.  Of these, probably the most famous is “[t[he road up and the road down are one and the same.” (fr. 60)
And then qualities that necessary for each other. “Disease makes health pleasant and good, hunger does the same for satiety, weariness for rest.” (fr. 111)
Finally, the there is the transmutation of elements.  “Fire lives the death of earth and air lives the death of fire, water lives the death of air, earth that of water,”  (fr. 76)
The river sayings have occasioned much discussion.  One version is this (rendered literally):  “On those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow.” (fr. 22). 

Properly interpreted, the sentence asserts that different waters flow in rivers that are themselves staying the same.  In other words, though the waters are always changing, the rivers remain rivers. In fact, it must be precisely because the waters are always changing that there are rivers at all, rather than lakes or ponds. The import is that rivers can stay the same over time even though, or indeed because, the waters change. The point, then, is not that everything is changing, but that the fact that some things change makes possible the continued existence of other things. It may be then that,  more generally, the change in elements or constituents supports the constancy of higher-level structures.
In the light of these passages, it may be argued that Heraclitus does not proclaim universal flux, a kind of unending hullaballoo,  Instead he recognizes a lawlike process,
Heraclitus asserts the primacy of  an everlasting Word  or Logos, according to which all things are one in some sense.  The Ephesian thinker is convinced that the cosmos exhibits a rational structure, and that this rational structure orders and controls the universe. The Logos is Heraclitus's physis, but only in the sense of a single principle informing all of nature.  To understand the logos it is imperative to acknowledge that all things are unified in it. To be sure, the logos is not the material out of which everything else arose according to the pattern of Milesian monism, though it ranks as the origin of all things insofar as it controls the arrangement of all matter.
In fact, Heraclitus’ theory responded critically to the philosophy of his Ionian predecessors. The Milesian thinkers - Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes - held that some original material turns into all other things (material monism). The world as we know it is the orderly ensemble of different things emanating from the primary element. For the Milesians, the task of  explaining the world and its phenomena required showing how everything came from the original stuff, such as Thales’ water or Anaximenes’ air.
Heraclitus seems to follow the Milesian example when he refers to the world as “everliving fire” (fr, 30) and makes statements such as “Thunderbolt steers all things,” alluding to the directive power of fire (fr. 64). But fire is a strange element to make the origin of all things, for it is the most inconstant and changeable. It is, indeed, a symbol of change and process. Heraclitus observes that “[a]ll things are an exchange for fire, and fire for all things, as goods for gold and gold for goods.” (fr. 90)

Ultimately, for Heraclitus fire may figure more importantly as a symbol than as an element. Fire is constantly changing, but so is everything else.  We witness a never-ending sequence of transformations, the Logos in action.  In this way Heraclitus anticipated the process of philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and others, The world is not to be identified with any particular substance, but rather with an ongoing process governed by a law of change.

Heraclitus’ accomplishment was enormous.   He ranks as the first Western philosopher to go beyond physical theory in search of the metaphysical foundations and moral assumptions that have come to form the basis for our thinking.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Reading lists

A current trend is for Facebook people to draft lists of ten books that have influenced them. On balance this seems a good idea, because the lists contain items that one did not know about, or items that one had meant to read but hadn't gotten around to. Yet I doubt that I will take advantage of this accumulation of advice, even in the leisure of my retirement, because I have too many unread books lingering about the apartment as it is. 

Still, I was struck by two things in the lists. Most of the items chosen are fiction and most are recent. Fiction of course allows us to peer into the lives of others and compare them with our own. This is particularly important for thoughtful persons, such as those making up the lists now, who have not been satisfied with simply adopting an identity that is handed out to them, but have, rightly, engaged in the challenging effort of self-fashioning. I suppose that the same point applies to recent works. Still, I wonder why there is no mention of Plato and Aristotle, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Hobbes, Karl Marx, Dickens, Tennyson, and Alfred Kinsey, to name just a few. 

Of course, it would be pretentious to cite such authors as influences when they have not been. But shouldn't they be? In my youth there was something called the Great Books Program. People would join clubs and struggle to understand these formidable works. That was, I suppose, a preoccupation of an older generation, my own. Younger people, if the sample I am reading is representative, seem to have a different approach.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

False friends

Quite a while back, I made my living as a translator and translation editor, working from texts in French, German, and Italian.  In doing this work one must be aware of the pitfalls of "false friends," words which resemble English-language terms, but which have a different meaning.  For example, in Italian patente does not a document certifying one's rights to an invention, but simply a driver's license. In Spanish embarazada does not signify some mild psychological discomfort, but that one is pregnant.

The dangers of false friends lie everywhere in the field of translation.  In what follows, though, I have concentrated on the German and French realms.  First, these languages are still, despite the growing dominance of English, the vehicles of academic and scientific writing - not fine literature.  Second, each has a special relationship to English.  German and English grew out of a common Germanic ancestor, and there are still numerous cognates attesting to this link.  For its part, French has supplied as much as 30% of the English vocabulary; we simply could not do with such words as table and chair; family and cousin; judge and jury - all stem from French.

1,  Similarities that are serendipitous, with no genetic connection (noncognates).  Ex.  Spanish misa, (religious) mass vs. Japanese misa, beautiful assistant.  Such phantom links can also occur in two related languages, as German Fahrt and English fart
2. Narrowing of meaning of one cognate.  Ex. English deer, vs. German Tier, animal.  Conversely, German Bein, leg, formerly had the broader meaning of English bone.  Extreme narrowing with overtones of obscenity is seen in German After, buttocks, i.e. posterior..
3.  Selective reception of one semantic field where several occur in the source language. Ex. French hôtel which can mean 1) a large public building, as in hôtel de ville and hôtel-Dieu; 2) town house (hôtel particulier); and 3) place of lodging.  Only the last has carried over into English.
4. Differential borrowing from a third language.  Ex. German Depot means deposit, warehouse, but not train station.  (The common source is French dépot.)
5.  Semantic drift, sometimes narrow as with French demander/English demand; and sometimes broad, as English to bless, and French blesser, to wound, which have opposite meanings.  Yet both of the latter derive from Germanic words for blood letting.
6.  Homonyms in the source language, not replicated in the target language.  Ex. German Akt, legal procedure, or act as in a play vs. Akt, nude.
7.   Products of faulty borrowing.  Ex. English bra, feminine undergarment vs. French bras, arm.  The actual source is French brassière, armlet.
8.  Pressure from a dominant language, which sometimes turns false friends into "true" friends over time. For instance, traditionally in Spanish, editar meant publish, not edit, but sometime in the mid or late 20th century it evolved to also include the English meaning.  Traditionally in Spanish medical terminology, ántrax meant carbuncle and carbunco meant anthrax. But then there were all those news stories about anthrax a few years ago, and Spanish-language news sources consistently used the wrong word: ántrax, which has pretty much now become the Spanish-speaking layperson's name for "anthrax." Medical writers are now in a muddle about whether to just give in and reverse the traditional terminology.  (I owe these examples to Steven Cappy.)
9.  Borrowing plus apocape (clipping).  An example has already been seen in bra, above.  In French itself, one finds foot (for football) and smoking (for smoking jacket - also found in German and French.

10. Invented “foreign” words as seen in some instances of Denglish (Germanified garbled English).  Ex. Handy, cell phone; Dressman, male model.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Salvation history and Islam

 In a brilliant book, ”Meaning in History,” that appeared seventy-five years ago, Karl Löwith traced the emergence of the dispensationalist view of history in early Christian times. This concept viewed history as not cyclical, nor merely a random succession, but an orderly succession of divinely ordained events - events leading to the Endtime, which would be characterized by the Restoration of All Things. Historians of religion term this overall concept - which it must be conceded is an ambitious one - the Heilsgeschichte or Salvation History,

Bur Löwith did not stop there, He proceeded to showe how this concept was secularized in the early modern period to yield the idea of progress. No longer divinely guided, the pattern was clear, Hence, what has been termed the Whig Theory of History which views liberal concepts of progress as unfolding logically and inevitabilty, notwithstanding a few twists and turns along the way.

Of course the earlier religious view did not die out. Indeed it sometimes combined in interesting ways with the Whig concept.

Here is an example that has proved influential. In 1857 a unitarian minister and prominent transcendentalist issued a collection of “Ten Sermons on Religion.” In the third of these one finds the following. “Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

This seems to be the origin of Martin Luther King’s well-known comment during our own times about the arc of the moral universe.

So far, few have taken up the task of showing how these concepts migrated into the world of al-Islam. It is natural that they would do so, given Muhammad’s formative contacts with Christian thinkers in northern Arabia, where Christianity was then dominant.

I borrow some of the following observations from Gottfried Hagen, professor of Turkish studies at the University of Michigan. He begins by observing that aspects of the Salvation History concept can be detected in most major religions. The Qur’an replaced the unorganic historical glimmerings of the primitive Arabians with a new concept of history in which its temporal extension was finite and bounded. Creation marked the beginning; the Last Judgment the end point of history. Outside of this sequence there is nothing; we dwell in a closed system. Looking back over time, we can discern a progressive series of revelations from a succession of Prophets stretching from Adam to Muhammad. According to the Ismailites, there are seven epochs of Prophets with Muhammad appearing in the sixth. The nature of the seventh remains unknown.

The role of the Islamic communities in the perspective of this salvation history is clear. In a succession of steps it must shorten the distance that separates it from the ideal situation of Islam. Premodern Islam has not always been clear about some of the details. Professor Hagen notes that some modern Muslim scholars have been receptive to the notions of Heilsgeschichte as outlined by Löwith. Of course they needed to reconcile the essentially progressive aspects of the theory with the traditionalist imperative of returning to the original purity of primordial Islam.

In all this, the inevitable triumph of Islam as the sole world religion is presupposed. Ideally, this beneficent state should come into being through the gradual enlightenment and conversion of unbelievers. Yet according to some - as we are seeing now in the Middle East - it may be deemed necessary to hasten the process by violence and ethnic cleansing.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Jeff Koons

After much procrastination (because my previous history with the artist’s work is mixed), I finally took in the big Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum. Even on a weekday morning the line to pay was long (though I was able to get in straightaway as a handicapped person). Inside, the crowds had an almost carnivalesque exuberance - with many small children (some pieces not being exactly suitable for them).

The objects benefited by being grouped thematically. Let me get my pet peeves out of the way directly, I detest the vacuum cleaners and volley balls in their glass cases. Ostensibly an exercise in the institutional theory of art (“if it’s shown in a museum, it is art”), these monstrosities cut a poor figure compared with their models, the iconic readymades of Marcel Duchamp.

I did not mind the sex scenes with Cicciolina, since sexual display is part of our culture now. Some of the bubble sculptures are quite enchanting. You can see yourself mirrored in the larger ones. There are quite a few good acrylic paintings.

In my view, the best pieces are the very latest ones, which play off classical sculpture. Centering this group is a superb knockoff of Bernini’s “Pluto and Proserpina.” Unlike most of the objects, which reference popular culture, these pieces work best with a knowledge of art history.

There are some photos of the artist in the basement. Jeff Koons is himself a Jeff Koons. His face is handsome but in a generic, almost plastic fashion. Maybe he retouched them to get this effect - or maybe that is just the way he is.