Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Monday, May 27, 2019

Gottfried Leibniz and his Grammar

Brandon C. Look's article on Leibniz (appearing in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)  is fascinating. It is a clear (well, perhaps "as clear as possible") article on Leibniz, and it will amuse and reward people who take the time to read it. There is indeed something compelling about Leibniz's ingenuity that needs to be described by philosophers.

It follows also that there is something in Leibniz's language that needs to be parodied by writers who seek to expose the grammar of the representational flights and excursions that characterize poetic language.

Without being too reductive, I think it is reasonable to characterize the "avant-garde" as largely a formalist experiment.  In examining the syntactical features of philosophical language, however, we might shift the emphasis of our experiments from form to grammar.

Consider the following passage from Look's article, which is rich in ingenious and wonderful language:
4.1 The Logical Conception of Substance    
In §8 of the Discourse on Metaphysics, Leibniz gives one of his most important accounts of the nature of individual substance. There he claims that the Aristotelian idea that a substance is that which is the subject of predication and which cannot be predicated of something else is insufficient for a true analysis of the nature of substance. He next appeals to the PC and the PIN: in every true predication, the concept of the predicate is contained in the concept of the subject. “Since this is so,” Leibniz claims, “we can say that the nature of an individual substance or of a complete being is to have a notion so complete that it is sufficient to contain and to allow us to deduce from it all the predicates of the subject to which this notion is attributed.” (A VI iv 1540/AG 41) In other words, xis a substance if and only if x has a complete individual concept (CIC), that is, a concept that contains within it all predicates of x past, present, and future. The CIC, then, serves to individuate substances; it is able to pick out its bearer from an infinity of other finite created substances. Leibniz gives as an example Alexander the Great. The concept of Alexander contains being a King, being a student of Aristotle, conquering Darius and Porus, and so on. Now, “God, seeing Alexander's individual notion or haecceity, sees in it at the same time the basis and reason for all the predicates which can be said truly of him.” (A VI iv 1540–41/AG 41) Leibniz's invocation of the Scotist notion of a haecceity is intriguing. What Leibniz is telling us is that Alexander's thisness is determined by the sum of his qualitative properties. Moreover, we can see a metaphysical aspect to this logical conception of substance: the complete individual concept of a substance is the notion oressence of the substance as it known by the divine understanding. 
Leibniz concludes this section with his celebrated doctrine of marks and traces: “when we consider carefully the connection of things, we can say that from all time in Alexander's soul there are vestiges of everything that has happened to him and marks of everything that will happen to him and even traces of everything that happens in the universe, even though God alone could recognize them all.” (A VI iv 1541/AG 41) The doctrine of marks and traces, therefore, claims that, because the CIC contains all predicates true of a substance past, present, and future, the entire history of the universe can be read (if only by God) in the essence of any individual substance. 
The consequences that Leibniz draws from the logical conception of substance and the doctrine of marks and traces are remarkable. In the following section (§9) of the Discourse on Metaphysics, we are told they include the following: 
 1 No two substances can resemble each other completely and be distinct. (PII)
 2 A substance can only begin in creation and end in annihilation.
 3 A substance is not divisible.
 4 One substance cannot be constructed from two.
 5 The number of substances does not naturally increase and decrease.
 6 Every substance is like a complete world and like a mirror of God or of the whole universe, which each expresses in its own way.

Initially, it strikes me that genre fiction could best lend itself to parodying these sorts of ideas, these ways of thinking, these ways of being clever with grammar... Alternatively, take the above instances of "substance," "marks," "traces," etc., and for them substitute alternative words, curious abstractions, exotic concepts, odd nouns, comical gerunds...

Elector Sophie of Hanover honors Leibniz symbolically with the laurel wreath,
relief by Karl Gundelach, part of the historical frieze at the New Town Hall of Hanover

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Richard Kostelanetz's A Dictionary of the American Avant-Gardes has been published

A Dictionary of the American Avant-Gardes is now available.

According to Amazon: "For this American edition of his legendary arts dictionary of information and opinion, the distinguished critic and arts historian Richard Kostelanetz has selected from the fuller third edition his entries on North Americans, including Canadians, Mexicans, and resident immigrants."

The American edition contains my article on Herman Melville.  Please click here for information on the larger third edition.

(And it contains an article on me.)

Please click the cover image to view the Amazon description:

 Please click HERE for information on the larger third edition.

Friday, May 17, 2019

On the Highbrow Highway

I am tooling along the Highbrow Highway and so will enlarge upon my second definition of Philosophy, "Thinking (talking) about thinking," when I have the leisure of my study.  Until then, allow me to recommend a video from 2018 featuring my International Authors colleague Sushma Joshi discussing the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival. Please click HERE.

Sushma Joshi

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

"Love of Wisdom."

What is Philosophy?

Our first answer is: 

1) Philosophy is the "Love of Wisdom."  More appropriately, it is an enthusiasm for discussing interesting things.

To proceed on this track, it is necessary to draw a distinction between "word-for-word" and "thought-for-thought" translations. 

In the first formulation, Philosophy φιλοσοφία, Philosophia, literally means "love of wisdom."  Unfortunately, I have very little Greek and have not read the word in such contexts as it was originally used (it has been suggested Pythagoras originated the phrase).  Observe, however, that English has many more words than Greek, and hence our ability to put our finger on a precise meaning of the term, as it can be expressed in English, goes beyond what the Greeks were able to do.  Originally, Sophia connoted "cleverness, skill", but was subsequently shaped by the term philosophia to connote "wisdom" and intelligence", or Phronesis. Note, however, that Gnosis ("knowledge") is absent from this formulation. As things transpire in history, knowledge will become an offshoot of Philosophy, and today we associate (rightly and wrongly) that knowledge with the word Science. Along these lines--and considering how the word is used to describe all manner of eccentric, obtuse and suspect matters--we might precisely translate Philosophy to mean "an enthusiasm for discussing interesting things."  And if a skeptical nuance can be inferred from my use of "enthusiasm" and "interesting", so much the better.

In the second formulation, our "thought-for-thought" translation, we should carry this nuance forward and, in the consideration of interesting things, we might wonder about the significance, the relevance, and the legitimacy of philosophical utterances. As we pass though our second, third, and fourth answers, we will see this nuance is appropriate. Additionally, we will find it profitable to insinuate "cleverness, skill" throughout our definition.

And thus we close with a consideration of a famous statement attributed to Socrates: "The unexamined life is not worth living." Now, what is revealed by considering an inversion of this formula, that is: "The examined life is worth living"?  Clearly, when considering what examining one's life could mean--in terms of introspection, circumspection, and what such examination could yield--the former is more desirable; that is, if we are seeking an ethical or "appropriate" response to the matter.

Socrates on trial

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

What is Philosophy?

Here are four ways to look at the question. 

1) Philosophy is the "Love of Wisdom."  More appropriately, it is an enthusiasm for discussing interesting things.

2. Philosophy is thinking (talking) about thinking.

3. Philosophy is the analysis of philosophical and scientific language and concepts.

4. Philosophy is gossiping about school teachers and the things they do and say.

I'll dilate upon these definitions in future Highbrow posts.

As Plato and Aristotle might agree: whatever it is, it is engaging.

Thursday, May 9, 2019


Chris Arabadjis
Untitled (2019-05-001)
Ballpoint pen on paper
10" x 8"

Monday, May 6, 2019

More on Butterworth's My Servant the Wind

An enthusiastic "5-star" review of Michael Butterworth's My Servant the Wind has appeared on the Amazon UK site:
Just plain excellent 
In these days of anodyne pap that is lauded as ‘literary fiction’ by people not old enough to have more than a few hundred books, it is a real joy to find a piece of sustained exploratory fiction. 
I’m not going to tell you what the book is about – read it and decide for yourself. And don’t expect the author to spoon feed you either. He treats his readers as intelligent beings who are canny enough to negotiate the complex narrative.
For me, writing is a true form of magic. Not the spotty boy wizard kind of escapism (which is on much the same level as what passes for literature these days), but an elemental magic that is both powerful and subtle. It is the source code of our modern being, shaping our thought and our actions. And it deserves to be explored far beyond the narrow confines of the likes of the redtop press and smart society middle-class literature, much as it was in the ‘New Wave’ during the 1960s and 70s, much as it is here in this novel.

Indeed, it is works that are both entertaining and mind bending that shine the brightest light into the shadowy core of our being, allowing us to come to know ourselves better, understand more clearly how we are made and how we work and through that agency, letting us become wiser beings.

It takes a bit of effort to follow the strands of the narrative, but you are rewarded all the more. And if all this sort of thing is new to you, seek out the authors who made and surfed that wave – Mike Butterworth included. You will find writing that is as deeply moving and satisfying as the best of the modernists, surrealists, absurdists, and magical realists ever produced. Before you do that, however, start here. It really is an excellent book.

To view the Amazon description of My Servant the Wind, please click the cover image:

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Saturday, May 4, 2019

"Dear Moon"

If you have a moment, please log into YouTube and "Like" this video.

ISS Lunar Transit

Friday, May 3, 2019

A Cephalopod Poem

The Chambered Nautilus
  by Oliver Wendell Holmes

This is the ship of pearl, which, poets feign,
Sails the unshadowed main,—
The venturous bark that flings
On the sweet summer wind its purpled wings
In gulfs enchanted, where the Siren sings,
And coral reefs lie bare,
Where the cold sea-maids rise to sun their streaming hair.

Its webs of living gauze no more unfurl;
Wrecked is the ship of pearl!
And every chambered cell,
Where its dim dreaming life was wont to dwell,
As the frail tenant shaped his growing shell,
Before thee lies revealed,—
Its irised ceiling rent, its sunless crypt unsealed!

Year after year beheld the silent toil
That spread his lustrous coil;
Still, as the spiral grew,
He left the past year’s dwelling for the new,
Stole with soft step its shining archway through,
Built up its idle door,
Stretched in his last-found home, and knew the old no more.

Thanks for the heavenly message brought by thee,
Child of the wandering sea,
Cast from her lap, forlorn!
From thy dead lips a clearer note is born
Than ever Triton blew from wreathèd horn!
While on mine ear it rings,
Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings:—

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!