Sunday, January 26, 2014

Peirce and pragmatism

I'm going to try and write a few posts on William James in the next few weeks, since I've been reading him.  I've been a bit busy so there's not been much going on here, sorry about that. But, like I say, that'll change.  In the meantime, I'm thinking through Charles Peirce's classic "How to Make Our Ideas Clear," and will have a few things to say about it, maybe also a little bit about Timothy Williamson too.  For now, here's a link to a good online version.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Recent reviews

Not much up here lately, but a lot in the background going on.  I give some links to recent reviews at my main site,, and I'll reproduce them here:

A review of Professor Borges for the Los Angeles Review of Books,

A review of J.M. Coetzee's strange new novel The Childhood of Jesus, for The Millions,

and a review of Jay Neugeboren's novel for Moment Magazine.

I also have a take on Julian Barnes' new work Levels of Life (or, rather, a take on the takes), at my site.

There are more reviews in the works -- a short little solid one on Kafka's "Metamorphosis" being the next.  You can keep up to date with my work by checking out my twitter feed or page.

Here, I plan on getting into some Wittgenstein, perhaps, as I'm making my way through the Logical Investigations lately (more like, finally -- I should have gotten around to it long ago), among other things (perhaps Sense and Sensibilia by J.L. Austin, too).

As usual, nothing too new probably to say on this front--certainly nothing as new as other blogs will have to say.  But I console myself by reflecting that philosophy is only new anyway when you dip back into it, ask the old questions and try to bring some life into them.  That is, when you do something, when you get going and put it into action.  If the results are obvious, the process of going about attaining them will--if you've done it right--not have been.  And, if you're lucky, never have been.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Appreciating Lévi-Strauss

I am reading Octavio Paz's brilliant introduction to Claude Lévi-Strauss (Claude Lévi Strauss: An Introduction), in the process of revisiting a bit of the latter's thought.  I've been doing this on and off over the last year or so.  I'll stub my toe on Structural Anthropology, that big thick brick of a book, and pick it up.  I've been looking around for The Savage Mind, and milling it over, though I can't quite find it in my house.   I've run into the two brand new translations of his lectures, in handsome volumes from Harvard University Press, reviewed online (like here at the LARB) and at the bookstore, and had a good long look at them.  I've been contemplating getting the slew of new (and very much needed and very much welcomed) biographies of him and introductions to his work.  And whenever I've had some alone time, and I can sit and read and think by myself, I've been rereading Tristes Tropiques.

So I will be writing a bit more about this amazing and still--in the American intellectual world at least, and despite the recent heroic efforts of many to combat this--under-appreciated thinker, trying to make things a bit more accessible, clearer, useful.  This usually in my book means outlining something less than the actual workings of the ideas themselves, and something more than a mere outline of the steps of argumentation, which just dissects the parts of the thing, and turns the thoughts to functions in some idea-machine (something Paz himself in his explication frowns upon).  I aim, that is, to get at the general tendencies in the works, that area in which the movement of thought is reflected in its style.

This is a correspondence that cannot and should not (even if it could) be captured in any clear formal mirroring of the thought in the mode of its expression.  And it lacks any clear demonstrability than what is necessary to urge the reciprocal sympathies of yet another thinking heart on the other side of the words I write here.  One can't point to any of these things exactly.  Elucidations aren't readings, but feelings.  You know they're right in the way that you know what someone's personality is, after you've lived with them for a while or met them for coffee a few times.

I go on at length here about this just as a reintroduction to what I think I've done in my little notes on this blog--I see it as a consistent sort of approach I have, and one which finds a sort of blood-brother in that of Paz, who emphasizes the personal manner of his introduction.  It's appreciative criticism, really.  And while it doesn't quite have scientific pretensions (Paz is quick to admit this), it often, as art itself does (since art could be said to be a way of appreciating the world), indeed achieves something like real, philosophic knowledge or wisdom.  Not that the achievement is easy.  Something is risked in this way of coming to know a thinker and setting that thought forth in personal paragraphs.  If you get it wrong, it isn't any different than getting someone's personality wrong--something that has not just bad effects for you, but for other people too in your life (you may have recommended the person to your friends, say, or brought them into contact with the thinker in question).   There are works who reward you, just like developing a lasting friendship with someone is rewarding; there are works who manipulate you, often just like people manipulate you.

On top of just reintroducing what I try to do in notes here, all this is not beside the point because of Lévi-Strauss himself.  For Lévi-Strauss is fundamentally someone who believed that all the style of thought can be exchanged, communicated.   Not only words and ideas themselves, but something of their essence, their truly individual character, is able to be translated and transferred from one environment into another.  The passion, the feeling, the deep commitment with which any of these languages is used and built up--this is translated too.   Real scientific insight, knowledge itself, is actually the process of--not extracting this knowledge, but facilitating the transfer, of playing around with what is possible there, of respecting this possibility and generating something out of it.

You wouldn't quite get this from what you hear about Lévi-Strauss.  There has grown up around his work, especially in theory-savvy circles in the US, a tendency to talk about this with great suspicion, and as if it left something crucial out of human life.  Lévi-Strauss appears bloodless, cold.  He appears too complicated, or too crazy.  The type of thing he is getting at--this generous, holistic procedure for acquiring anthropological knowledge--gets talked about as if it is merely the isolation of certain hard and clear and coherent networks of thought. As if structuralism were the same thing as identifying or classifying certain groups of things.

But this is only true in the sense that all deep work, all deep and philosophic thought, every metaphysics and especially every ontology, every account of the way it really is and what it is--every kind of profound grasp on reality like this eventually deals with the categories, as Aristotle called them.  Philosophers appreciate this point, but don't stress it enough.  Thought about what there is and the way it is ultimately has to turn on what kinds of things you're going to admit exist, or don't exist.  Thought that even tries to resist this sort of work, like historical narratives of things that never subsist, or transcendental critique that only looks at the conditions of possibility of such things, similarly has to employ conceptions of these sorts of things, make use of them.  You can't write a sentence without nouns, without stuff, and without clear sorts of relations that involve the stuff, without objects to direct verbs at, .  This is what categories do, this is the deep truth about what thinking wisely in any sort of way is: thinking about what's really the case, what's really real, about what reality means and involves and is.  The first philosophic thought, it is said, was a remark by Thales to the effect that "everything is water."  This is why that is a philosophic, wise belief--and not just him being bonkers.  Structuralism, it turns out, is one of the most sophisticated versions of this sort of thought since Aristotle--and it is Lévi-Strauss who first realizes this deeply, which is why the movement or the way of thinking is so associated with him.

But we don't even need to get that far now.  We'll get to the full implications of this in an upcoming post.  For now, all that needs to be said is that, except in this deeper way of talking about it (and even there too, as I've tried to hint a little), what Lévi-Struass is dealing with is hardly the erection of rigid sorts of boundaries between certain things, of assigning identities, of reducing what's real and what matters to some consistent sort of framework, giving it borders and making its outlines clearer.  No.  Structuralism is not structural in this kind of hard, unyielding way.

The word you hear all the time is  "logic."  What Lévi-Strauss uncovered in a certain culture was its underlying "logic."  What he found in a certain story is the Oedipal myth's "logic."  And while this does acknowledge that what Lévi-Strauss did find in certain cultures that made information translatable between them was indeed called by him a "logic," this was a human logic--this is why such deep "logic" can come from anthropology, of all places--or a logic whose first and foremost feature is that it is lived, and meaningful, and felt.  If the real sense of this isn't obvious from Tristes Tropiques alone, it is from many passages all over Lévi-Strauss' writing.  For example, in a certain crucial passage in "The Strucutural Study of Myth"--that seminal essay.  Lévi-Strauss here speaks of a myth's "logic," but uses it as a synonym for "feeling."  That's how deep this "logic" runs.  This is the sense in which "logic" is being used.  He says, speaking about the way structural analysis deals with myth, the following:

"Our method [he says] thus eliminates a problem which has, so far, been one of the main obstacles to the progress of mythological studies.  Namely, the quest for the true version, or the earlier one.  On the contrary, we define the myth as consisting of all its versions; or to put it otherwise, a myth remains the same as long as it is felt as such." (Structural Anthropology, p. 216-217)

This is magnificently simple, and it is easy to overlook that last point.  But that's the crucial bit.  The full implications of those last two sentences I'll elaborate throughout the upcoming posts here in which I deal with Lévi-Strauss.  Namely, of the way this manner of thinking about myth obviates quests for the primitive, original versions of a myth, and the way it also obviates considerations of the true version of a myth--reflections that have huge implications for how we understand the worth of cultures and cultural productions generally.  But all that needs to be noted now is just that what Lévi-Strauss is dealing with is as much a set of deep feelings, sentiments, emotions, currents of opinion, all the hard-to-grasp, messy qualities of life that make it living and real and human--as it is a "definition," some delineation of what counts as and what does not count as a myth.  The object of his investigation is first and foremost human impulses of life, the things that make it what it is.  It is, simply, how we feel, and persist in feeling, believing, perceiving something.  That is, how real life is to us.

Paz has a great image (one of many, as Michael Wood recently reminds us in the LRB) to characterize how Lévi-Strauss thinks and what it is like to witness him really seeing the world in the way he sees it.  He speaks of the last chapter of Tristes Tropiques:

"The thought achieves in those few pages a density and transparency which might make us think of the forms of rock crystal takes if it were not for the fact that it is animated by a pulsation which does not recall so much mineral immobility as the vibration of light waves.  A geometry of brilliance which takes the fascinating shape of the spiral.  It is the conch shell, symbol of wind and word, a sign of movement among the ancient Mexicans: each step is simultaneously a return to the starting point and an advance towards the unknown."  (Claude Lévi-Strauss: An Introduction, 135-6)

Wind and word: this is the precise description of logos, the word, the breath, the life--all that stuff (sorry to wax mystical).  That is, the real sort of experience of "logic."

In this he also gets at something more which makes Lévi-Strauss particularly relevant today, I think.  This is image of iterated simple structures in a shell making up complex patterns--the formula at the heart of one kind of complexity that is now at the heart of the study of social phenomena and natural phenomena of all sorts (clouds, flocks, preferences, relationships).  The way Lévi-Strauss sees simple rules in nature and develops out of them patterns of arrangement, networks, of vast and often semi-chaotic... what to call them... structures.  This Lévi-Strauss, in other words, offers an excellent way of introducing the concerns at the heart of the study of complexity into fields that may have at one time or another theoretically rejected his invitations to adopt a more structural way of thinking about the world.