Monday, June 27, 2005

Steiner's Pedagogy

George Steiner's Lessons of the Masters is an intimidating frolic of allusion and erudition through the history of teaching. More accurately, it is a history of powerful teachers and their disciples. A list gives the flavour of the book, as it ranges through Socrates, Jesus, Plotinus, Virgil, Kafka, Husserl, Abelard, Heidegger, Alain, Schopenhauer, Boulanger, Feynman, and Popper.

The stories are entertaining, but I'm not sure what we are supposed to learn from them. Steiner's cases are badly chosen for the question with which he begins:
What empowers a man or woman to teach another human being, where lies the wellspring of authority?
For each of Steiner's teachers, this has a short, if somewhat inscrutable answer: genius. Not much use to the rest of us, though. (And I do worry, quite sincerely, about my authority to teach ethics.) As we go along, the question is mostly dropped – the writing is anecdotal, not argumentative. This is not a book about how one should teach. (Steiner belongs to the school of the "Great Man".) Nor is it about (or for) the anxieties of the new professor. Its denunciation of failure is severe:
Poor teaching, pedagogic routine, a style of instruction which is, consciously or not, cynical in its merely utilitarian aims, are ruinous. They tear up hope by the roots. Bad teaching is almost literally murderous and, metaphorically, a sin.
If you feel accused by this, or threatened, an obvious response is to impugn the pedagogy of the work itself, to savage Steiner for his presumption. To that extent, this review is suspect. But I protest: I liked the book very much.

One of its best problems is inherited from Socrates, as critic of the Sophists: "How is it possible to pay for the transmission of wisdom, of knowledge, of ethical doctrine or logical insights?" Steiner's reaction is, however, peculiar:
How can a vocation be put on a payroll? [...] This question has haunted me and left me uneasy during my whole life as a teacher. Why have I been remunerated, given money, for what is my oxygen and raison d'être? [...] By what oversight or vulgarization should I have been paid to become what I am?
I don't object to the conceit of this, or even quite to its unworldliness. I am glad that Steiner cannot believe they pay him to do this, and I sometimes feel that way myself. But it mis-conceives the difficulty that money was supposed to make, which is not that it is crass, or that it drags the scholar into society (where else should she be?) but that it makes consumers out of students. If I am paying to be taught, then I want to be taught what I'm paying for – and don't I have a right to be? But then the very project of education is under assault, and the question of authority (by what right does the teacher decide what to teach, and how to teach it?) takes a disturbing turn. This is part of an argument for public education, and a reason why the institutions of learning face a constant pressure to become more cynical and utilitarian, to "tear up hope by the roots" and so to diminish what they mean to serve.

Monday, June 20, 2005

The Joyful Science

Is there philosophical humour? We could probably do with it, philosophy being as it is so demoralizing and hard. What passes for humour in philosophy these days, however, is the feeble pun, or a cutesiness that reaches its nadir in Jerry Fodor.

There have been funny philosophers: Hobbes and Hume on occasion, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard more consistently, Russell, Austin, the sometimes nasty humour of Plato's Socrates and Peter Geach, and the lighter charms of Gerry Cohen, whose autobiographical book on egalitarianism is one of the enduringly valuable comic-political works of all time. Also, the collection of Proofs that P, and the Philosophical Lexicon.

But these are trivia, and my question was of course quite seriously meant. According to legend, Wittgenstein once said that a serious and good philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes. His own work provides few compelling examples. From Philosophical Investigations:

It can’t be said of me at all (except perhaps as a joke) that I know I am in pain.

This is unlikely to have them rolling in the aisles. But I like his question, also in the Investigations, "why do we feel a grammatical joke to be deep?"

I once invented a joke of the kind Wittgenstein apparently approves, but it unfortunately depends on verbal presentation.
Q: (pointing) What's that?
A: A demonstrative pronoun.
Even presented verbally, I'm afraid, the joke is very bad. But it has a philosophical moral, albeit it a boring one, about the confusion of use and mention.

No doubt Wittgenstein had bigger fish to fry. His "grammatical jokes" were meant to expose confusions deeper than the one I found, to drag us spluttering but smiling from the seas of language in which we are otherwise likely to drown. I am tempted to understand Wittgenstein's attitude in relation to this aphorism by Mary Douglas (from her anthroplogical essay, "Jokes"):
A joke is a play upon form that affords an opportunity for realising that an accepted pattern has no necessity.
This goes along with a family of readings that make Wittgenstein some sort of conventionalist: one who accepts the contingency, or at least the arbitrariness of "grammar". It is a topic I would like to think more about; I don't know how to read Wittgenstein on necessity. But at least this seems true: it is distinctive of Wittgenstein to resist a metaphysical conception of necessity, the kind of conception on which a necessary truth must flow from, and be explained by, what it is to be one thing or another.

Without that conception, the constructive project of philosophy – that of deriving necessities from the natures of things (analysis in a newly metaphysical guise) – is bound to lapse. That would make some sense of Wittgenstein's therapeutic and anti-theoretical approach.

A hard question: how to adjudicate the matter, even if we can be clear about it?

I won't begin to do that here, returning instead to my principal topic: philosophical humour. Does it have a non-trivial, but non-Wittgensteinian form? I suppose there is always the absurd example, the joke that brings out the necessity of what is necessary, not the space for an alternative. But while this is not as bad as the pun, or Jerry Fodor, it is pretty drab all the same. I am afraid the anti-metaphysicans have all the good lines.

Thursday, June 16, 2005


Peter Geach on expressivism or non-cognitivism (what he calls "Ascriptivism"):
It is really quite easy to devise theories on this pattern; here is a new one that has occurred to me. "To call a man happy is not to characterize or describe his condition; macarizing a man" (that is, calling him happy: the words "macarize" and "macarism" are in the O.E.D.) "is a special non-descriptive use of language. If we consider such typical examples of macarism as the Beatitudes, or again such proverbial expressions as 'happy is the bride that the sun shines on; happy are the dead that the rain rains on,' we can surely see that these sentences are not used to convey propositions. How disconcering and innapropriate was the reply, 'Yes, that's true,' that a friend of mine got who cited 'happy are the dead that the rain rains on' at a funeral on a rainy day!
This delightful theory may have a precedent: at the end of Leviathan vi, where Hobbes examines "the Interiour Beginnings of Voluntary Motions, Commonly Called the Passions, and the Speeches by Which They Are Expressed":
The form of speech whereby men signify their opinion of the goodness of anything is PRAISE. [...] And that whereby they signify the opinion they have of a man's felicity is by the Greeks called makarismos, for which we have no name in our tongue.
Hobbes qualifies his flirtation with "ascriptivism" by defining "felicity" as "continual success in attaining those things which a man from time to time desireth". That sounds like a descriptive criterion. But if he is a non-cognitivist about "good" (as some believe) and he conflates good with benefit (hence his apparent commitment to psychogical egoism), perhaps he should be a non-cognitivist about "felicity", too.

I offer my theory (in the spirit of Geach) to anyone who wants it. Happy is the scholar who defends this reading of Hobbes!

Monday, June 13, 2005

Baseball and the Meaning of Life

I was reminded recently of the well-known teaching that the meaning of life is 42. Like others, I have not found this very helpful. But it occurred to me that, if our subject is life and death, baseball may hold the key. Look around at any ballpark for the numbers that have been retired: you will see the number 42. It was Jackie Robinson's number, honoured at every stadium in the Major Leagues.

Surely not a coincidence. But how to interpret this sign? I turned to Robinson for insight, and found the following aphorism:
A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.
So he claimed; and the words appear on his gravestone. Unfortunately, his view implies that life is meaningless. If the value of everything I do is instrumental, cashed out in terms of its effects on you, then it has value only if your life has value in turn. But, according to Robinson, the value of everyone's life is wholly instrumental, and thus depends on the value of others' lives... Value is always deferred; as Aristotle says, "it goes on without limit, so that desire proves empty and futile." It is only if a life can have final value, value for own sake, or in itself, that there can be value in acting on behalf of others.

I am afraid that the secret doctrine of baseball is that life is meaningless. But it sure is fun.

Monday, June 06, 2005

In Theory

Terry Eagleton's After Theory is not well-named: it is as much amidst theory, amongst theory, and astride theory as it could possibly be. Or perhaps it is well-named: "after" can mean "in the debt of", as well as "posterior to"; it can be a label for pastiche as much as rebellion.

My reactions to the book can be organized by style and substance. The substance is a trenchantly Marxist re-telling of the history of cultural theory through Althusser, Derrida, Foucault et al. (Take-home message: idiologiekritik good; relativism bad.) The style is self-parodic in its obsession with unpredictable demotic analogies. It must be quoted at length:
For some of its critics, the very idea of cultural theory is a contradiction in terms, rather like 'fascist intellectual' or 'Alabaman haute cuisine'. […] Isn't a theory of art rather like trying to have a science of scowling or cuddling? […] In the bad old days it was assumed that culture was something you needed to have in your blood, like malaria or red corpuscles. […] Culture was not something you could acquire, any more than you could acquire a second pair of eyebrows or learn how to have an erection. […] Your judgements on Stendhal and Rembrandt were as spontaneous as a sneeze, as instinctive as opening doors for elderly ladies.
These examples come from two paragraphs; the entire book is like this. How to respond? At first it seems funny, then a bit annoying, then pathological, and finally utter madness, like someone who plays the children's game of repeating everything you say – but then will never stop.

Here we must thematize. In a characteristic discussion, Eagleton argues that George Best led a bad life in being drunk and dissolute because he "was not doing what it was in him to do" and "had failed at what he was supremely equipped to excel at". This is supposed to help us distinguish pleasure from the good life. But it may provide an insight into the author himself: what Eagleton is supremely equipped to excel at is the comic-mundane comparison; and so his flourishing consists in doing as much of it as possible. Thus he achieves the best good, regardless of the irritation and eventual anger of his readers.

Philosophers will recognize in this report a butchered version of Aristotle's ethics, with which Eagleton proposes to replace the semi-coherent denials of objectivity with which we associate the post-modern. Most of what he says is fair enough, in fact. In a book with very few footnotes, MacIntyre gets three, and Philippa Foot one: Eagleton is aware of some recent developments in the tradition he defends.

But it is all terrifically ungracious. Despite saying what philosophers have said before – for instance, in his endorsement of "absolute truth" as a matter of disquotational platitudes and non-contradiction – Eagleton has contempt for philosophy, "an aridly semantic affair", "less imaginatively endowed" than Barthes and Kristeva, "too fascinated by the logical distinction between the phrases 'nothing matters' and 'nothing chatters' to take much interest in changing the world." That hurts. Though you might wonder whether it is the job of the philosophy of language to change the world, any more than it is of linguistics or philology. And the closest Eagleton gets to revolution is recycled Aristotelianism, which is done much better (with arguments!) by others.

In any case, I didn't read his book for amateur moral philosophy, but for an engagement with the critics of "theory". Unfortunately, they are simply dismissed on page one:
Those to whom the title of this book suggests that 'theory' is now over, and that we can all relievedly return to an age of pre-theoretical innocence, are in for a disappointment. There can be no going back to an age when it was enough to pronounce Keats delectable or Milton a doughty spirit.
What age was that, exactly?

Fair enough: it's hyperbole. But there are critics who read books as something other than artifacts in the culture wars, who resist even the charms of idiologiekritik. There is John Bayley; there is Frank Kermode. Perhaps it is unfair to criticize Eagleton for not writing a book about them. He has to follow his interests, after all. Or perhaps they simply offered too few opportunities for vernacular simile. There is no gap between substance and style.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Dear Mr. Bellow

I admired your novel, Herzog, very much, but I'm not sure I understand it. One thing that puzzles me is the narrative voice. For the most part, we are presented with seamless transitions from omniscient narrator to free indirect discourse: familiar enough. But there are occasional and disorienting leaps into first-person confessional, a direct address to the reader than invites comparison with Herzog's letters to people living and dead. It's almost as if Herzog is the narrator throughout, struggling to conceive himself in the third person, but unable to maintain the pretence. Is that a crazy view?

It fits with my sense of Herzog's project within the novel, one of self-detachment or self-observation through intellect: becoming an object to himself. Or solving the puzzle of life through pure thought. Perhaps I shouldn't quote them to you, since you wrote them, but here are two passages I like very much:

He noted with distate his own trick of appealing for sympathy. A personality had its own ways. A mind might observe them without approval. Herzog did not care for his own personality, and at the moment there was apparently nothing he could do about its impulses.

See, Moses? We don't know one another. Even that Gersbach, call him any name you like, charlatan, psychopath, with his hot phony eyes and his clumsy cheeks, with the folds. He was unknowable. And I myself, the same. But hard ruthless action taken against a man is the assertion by evildoers that he is fully knowable. They put me down, ergo they claimed final knowledge of Herzog. They knew me.

The second of these is a moment of unclassifiable self-address, and a repudiation of the novel, which gives the brilliant illusion that we, too, know Herzog – and must be his enemies because of it.

What I did not follow was the ending of the book. Moses stops writing letters, tamps the flow of fake communication.
At this time he had no messages for anyone. Nothing. Not a single word.
My question is: how are we supposed to feel about this?