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August 06, 2008


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Of course I understand the point about different paradigms not being able to comprehend each other. The problem with these sorts of explanations of Heidegger is that they turn him into a tired hack with nothing to say that hadn't already been said, with much greater elegance, by J. G. Herder, and at much more length by Hegel--and most of all by the proto-Heidegger, Hamann. Heidegger's particular interest in language as something that creates worlds is not so far removed from the "Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis". This is all in W. Humboldt too--all part of the German 'H for historicist' tradition to which Heidegger was heir.

It's just all so wishy-washy and vague with these philosophers who deal in the a-priori. That's why a more fruitful approach, it seems to me, can be found in the empirical testing of the 'Geography of Thought' book I've mentioned.

The thesis is also generally overstated with regards to the Middle Ages: a scholar reads through an Aquinas 'Summa', or Pseudo-Dionysius, or something like that, and suddenly every mediaeval peasant visualised the world as a great and perfect hierarchy of Being. It is certainly a train of thought which is dominant among the great intellectuals of the period--as it would be until the 19th century--but by no means 'the spirit of the age'. (PS. On this, you must read Lovejoy's accessible classic "The Great Chain of Being".)

The conceptualisation of the good in terms of resources / efficiency, as you've put it, doesn't seem especially postmodern. It is just plain old utilitarianism as it's been going since Bentham et al. As for "being the best you can be", the theme of self-actualisation is classical, and can be seen in the virtue-ethics of Aristotle or the mystical theosis (becoming one with God, which is the same as perfecting the self) of the Neoplatonists. See 'entelechia':


Similarly: "People who care about intellectual matters are seen as snobbish and in Ivory Towers". It has been the same since mediaeval jokes about cloud-headed university professors, and even the story in Diogenes Laertius about Thales falling into a well because he was staring at the heavens. The problem with pointing out that we have an essentially utilitarian attitude towards our activities is that it doesn't /solve/ the problem. One cannot convince the efficiency-hound that he is wrong simply by observing that he is an efficiency-hound. Why shouldn't we value things in a utilitarian manner, just because the ancients didn't?

Re: silent reading. Augustine's admiration is directed at his teacher and baptizer, St. Ambrose of Milan. As Mary Carruthers points out in her excellent book on the Art of Memory, what impressed Augustine was that St. Ambrose /only/ read silently: classical authors already distinguished between 'lectio', reading aloud, and 'meditatio'. The history of silent reading and its relation to word-division and the punctuation of texts has been discussed by Ivan Illich, "In the vineyard of the text", and influentially by Paul Saenger, "Silent reading: its impact on late medieval script and society", in 'Viator' #13 (1982).

“Herr Heidegger—Nothing but a hack?”

Well, he certainly seems a hack if you are reading him through the lens of Hegel or Whorf! But, of course, Heidegger did *not* say that history was dialectical—- quite the opposite. (And this is an important point—as Heidegger was in fact not a historicist in the sense of Hegel as he was *arguing against* the dialectical and/or progressive explanation). And concerning Whorf, Heidegger was not saying that language creates the world, but rather that the world creates language. This is another important point since rather than language creating the way we understand the world (Whorf), H is presenting a slightly different picture whereby according to him, language is created and is an expression of the world-picture (that is language does NOT fundamentally affect how we see the world). The Whorf point is less significant than the Hegel point, however, as Heidegger’s writing stands as a critique of Hegel.

A hack like the rest, but more dishing up Kierkegaard, I’d suggest.

On Paradigms: I can no more say what every Medieval peasant was thinking or feeling than you can, but I think it *is* safe to say that throughout history, cultures (as groups of people) have understood human action, morality, & the meaning of being in terms of a shared view of the world, and that this shared culture can be described in broad pen strokes…. We can test this empirically today in fact when we travel overseas and see different outlooks that people of different cultures share which shape their social practices. Your first day in New Delhi will bring this home.

On Post-modern & utilitarianism versus Efficiency/Resources: Utilitarianism has traditionally been concerned with human action (in particular the moral worth of human action in regards to achieving human happiness). Rather than an ontology, I think it may be closer to a kind of moral strategy. So, right away we are comparing apples and oranges. Although they appear similar, saying we should seek out actions that benefit the greater good is significantly & categorically different I would argue than seeing all things and people in terms of resources. The best place to explore this would be our discussing the phenomenology (via comparing and/or contrasting) the following two concepts with reference to the “why”: an ancient Greek or ancient Chinese concept of perfecting the self (in terms of virtue) versus today’s concept of “the best me I can possibly be”…

Is a post-modern understanding of being based on Efficiency bad?

Well, not per se. If history is not developing or unfolding, I don’t think you can say one is better than the other. However, I think you will see certain practices held up and emphasized more in some and less in others, similar to what we see in different cultures or time periods around the world. So that maybe for the Medievals, a person’s personal relation to God was in general more central than it is today; while one’s duties to one’s parents are perhaps more central in Japan than in California. The same with education and academia.

(I personally feel there has been an anti-intellectual shift even in the last 10 years, for example, in the US and this is tied to our current (often unconscious) shared understanding of what it means to be human).

Yes, people have had the “head in the clouds” idea since the beginning of time, but things are emphasized and de-emphaized depending on the current paradigm or shared understanding of a culture…

To me, Conrad, whether Heidegger is a hack or not is less interesting than the question I posed above: Is our current “get the most out of life/be the best I can possibly be” really similar to the Ancient Greek ideal as you presented it. Email me. I would love to hear more…

Whenever your emails come through to my email software, btw, the “C” in your name is replaced with the kanji for ding: 鼎onrad… It’s quite nice, isn’t it?

The Saenger book looks fascinating (word spacing →reading aloud).. it’s rather expensive so I may read about it online….And is there 2 books on the Art of Memory? I bought the Yates one (was that a mistake?)

this is interesting in relation to not only this post but to our other discussion about digital books.


Roman authors like Plutarch and Cicero praised reading aloud as an aid to memory, and internal evidence suggests that letters and orations were meant to be spoken rather than read. Further, "books of the ancient Romans were highly unsuited to visual reading and study," containing "neither punctuation, distinction between uppercase and lowercase letters, nor word separation." This and other evidence suggests that "silent reading was an uncommon practice in classical antiquity." (370)

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