Friday, October 24, 2014


Today we take alphabetization for granted. Where did our system of ordering the characters (A to Z) come from? The short answer is that it derives from the Greek alphabet, which imitated the order of the Phoenician alphabet, its own source. The most recent scholarship suggests that the Phoenician alphabet in turn stems from a simplified form of Egyptian characters used by merchants active in the eastern desert in Egypt, who brought their invention/adaptation with them to the Sinai.  The order in which they arranged the characters is unknown.
The standard work in the field still seems to be Lloyd W. Daly’s pithy, but somewhat inconclusive "Contributions to a History of Alphabetization in Antiquity and the Middle Ages" (Brussels, 1967). While the order we are accustomed to, or something close to it seems to have been imposed on Greek schoolboys as a learning aid pretty much at the outset, the use of the method for lists, ordering of books, and the like took centuries to appear. The earliest alphabetized list Daly found stems from the third century BCE on the Greek isle of Kos where 150 names were inscribed in stone. The names are broken into three lists, and each is alphabetized.  
The scholars at the library of Alexandria seem to have been the ones to have achieved a more general practice. For example, in the collected plays of Euripides, the works appear in an order determined by the first letter of the title.

Thursday, October 23, 2014


Still preoccupied with the classics, I am reviewing my knowledge of Aristotle, generally a tough old bird. One of his most interesting claims, however, is the Doctrine of the Mean as expounded in book 2 of the Nicomachean Ethics. In the giving and taking of money, for example, generosity is the mean between profligacy and stinginess. With regard to one's emotional life, proper passion is the mean between anger and indifference. And so forth. As the philosopher allows, there are some circumstances where this principle does not prevail, but it is useful to be reminded that it frequently does. Moderation may be boring, but more often than not it is the best course.

This insight of Aristotle may be generalized into a broader concept of intermediacy. In this context I thought of the ideas of Magnus Hirschfeld a hundred years ago, who assigned male homosexuality, lesbianism, cross dressing, and other "variant" behaviors to a series of Zwischenstufen, or intermediate states. This fusion of Aristotle and Hirschfeld, if you will, seems to underly some current encomia of trans people, who (in this view) are seeking a happy intermediacy that we should all admire, even though we may not pursue it as our personal goal.

That being said, many trans people decline to endorse the intermediacy concept, seeking to reaffirm polarity by leaving the gender that society has assigned them to achieve the opposite one. Thus there seems to be a disconnect between the trans status as imagined by outsiders, and that status as envisaged by those who embrace it.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Liberalism and its genealogy

A somewhat daunting compilation (800 pp.), Liberalismus, by Jörg Leonard (2001) explores the historical semantics of the term in Western Europe. In ancient Rome, the word liberalitas denoted a virtue that was exclusively possessed by the emperor, that of bestowing largesse. In the course of the Middle Ages, however, the expression Liberal Arts gained currency. Ostensibly open to everyone, they could actually only be accessed by the privileged. And so in eighteenth-century France and England liberality was the prerogative of the aristocracy. They cultivated the liberal arts in order to consolidate their status as gentlemen, and also showed their status in practice by noblesse oblige, conferring benefits on the lower orders. 

During the French Revolution this set of connotations began to change, as liberalité was now associated with the Third Estate, and ultimately with the middle class. Thus when the Liberal Party took shape in the UK in the 1850s it inherited much of this baggage.

Evidently exhausted by his monumental task, Leonard stops shortly after the middle of the nineteenth century. More chapters in the story appear in Liberalism: A Counter-History by Domenico Losurdo, admittedly a summation of the case for the prosecution. Losurdo points out that the rise of modern liberalism in the late eighteenth century coincides with the apogee of the modern institution of slavery. The ambivalence (to put it mildly) of the American Founders, many of them themselves slave owners, is well known. One who did not put it mildly is Samuel Johnson: "How is that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?"

Not even John Stuart Mill, that saintly icon of liberalism, escapes criticism. Mill believed in a hierarchy of races with, of course, English people ranking at the top. Even Germans, it seems, had a little too much of the tar brush for Mill.
The other disconcerting aspect of the heritage is liberal imperialism. Tocqueville, so eloquent about Democracy in America, was a fervent supporter of French incursions into North Africa, the subjection of the "natives," and the seizure of their lands for French colons. Karl Marx supported the British in India, because they were bringing the backward people who had the misfortune to live there into the modern world.
In the twentieth century such progressives as Margaret Sanger were openly racist.  Many progressives supported eugenics. 

It  now should be evident that the association between liberalism and democracy, now often taken for granted, is problematic.  

A curious further complication is represented by the compound Neo-liberalism, coined by a German economist in 1938. In more recent years the expression gained traction in Latin America, where it served to castigate the free-market policies advocated by the Chicago school. In this pejorative sense, it migrated to Western Europe and the UK. 

Employed in the US, the expression Neo-liberalism is confusing, since it connotes almost the polar opposite of the interventionism that has come to be associated with the liberalism of our Democratic Party.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Twilight of the Gay-Rights Movement (?)

Here is my controversial thought of the day. 
The American gay-rights movement began with the bold initiative of Harry Hay and his friends in Los Angeles in 1950. Today, as we look forward with some confidence to the securing of same-sex marriage in all 50 states, the work of this movement is pretty much done. When I joined the effort in 1968 it speedily became clear that two things were required. 1) Information in print form was needed that could supplant the homophobic rubbish that inquiring young people were certain to find in libraries and bookstores in those days. And so with my colleagues I created the Research Guide and the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality. These books, together with much other valuable material, are still available. 2) The sodomy laws, which then prevailed in almost every state, were the linchpin of everything that was holding us back. So, even though I am not a lawyer, I joined the National Committee for Sexual Civil Liberties, eventually supplemented and surpassed by other organizations with the goal of dismantling the sodomy laws and other adverse statutes and legislation. This task too has been largely accomplished.
I have not stopped thinking and writing, but now I am concentrating on other topics. It is time for the gay-rights movement to declare success - and for the rest of us to move on - at least on the political front as we know it.
There is still a need to preserve gay culture in archives and libraries Gay museums have appeared in several cities.  Above all community centers help many people.
There is also need for international effort, as seen in countries like Uganda, Russia and much of the Arab world.  
Yet the work of the US-centered movement seems to be complete.  Only some careerists in Washington and a few other places think otherwise.

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.