Archive: Reading Notes

Translation of the week: Rivarol on the philosophes

Since in philosophy the spirit of analysis is pre-eminent, its new disciples have used solvents and decomposition throughout. In physics, they find only objections against the Author of nature; in metaphysics, only doubts and subtleties; morals and logic provide them only with declamations against political order, religious ideas, and the laws of property; they have aspired to nothing less than universal reconstruction through universal revolt, and without realizing that they were themselves in the world, they have pulled down its columns.
How could they not have seen that their analyses were methods whose origin lay in the human mind, and were not nature’s way? that in nature, all is relation, proportion, harmony, aggregation? that nature continually binds, assembles, and compounds, even as it decomposes, because its laws never sleep, while the man who analyzes, whether as chemist or reasoner, can only observe and suspend, decompose and kill?
Rivarol, from a portrait by Wyrsch, 1784; in André Le Breton, Rivarol, sa vie, ses idées, son talent […] (Paris: Hachette, 1895), frontispiece
What would one say of an architect who, given the task of raising an edifice, broke the building-stones so as to find in them salts, air, and a terreous base, and offered us an analysis instead of a house? The prism as it dissects the light ruins for us the spectacle of nature.
Still they believed—these philosophers—that to define men was a greater thing than to reunite them; that to emancipate them was greater than to govern them, that to excite them, finally, was greater than to make them happy. They overturned States to regenerate them, and dissected living men to know them better.
It was in vain that Plato (Greece, too, suffered the irruptions of this philosophy) said to them that it was for them to make verses and music, but only to talk about doing so, since their philosophy was merely discursive; it was in vain that Zeno held that the true philosopher is nothing but an good actor, equally fit for the role of king or subject, master or slave, rich or poor: for indeed it is a true philosophy to do everything well, and to find nothing bad; in vain, I say, were men advised on the nature and the difference of the two philosophies; in every head a change had occurred that prepared the revolution of which the philosophers abruptly became the promoters, guides, and victims, a revolution in which they thought that the natures of all things could be altered without destroying any, that all could be destroyed without peril, that mankind could be put at risk without committing any crime.
Original text:
<163> Comme c’est éminemment l’esprit d’analyse qui domine dans la philosophie, ses nouveaux disciples ont employé partout les dissolvants et la décomposition. Dans la physique, ils n’ont trouvé que des objections contre l’auteur de la nature; dans la métaphysique, que doute et subtilités; la morale et la logique ne leur ont fourni que des déclamations contre l’ordre politique, contre les idées religieuses et contre les lois de la propriété; ils n’ont pas aspiré à moins qu’à la reconstruction du tout par la révolte contre tout, et, sans songer qu’ils étaient eux-mêmes dans le monde, ils ont renversé les colonnes du monde.
Comment n’ont-ils pas vu que leurs analyses étaient des méthodes de l’esprit humain, et non un moyen de la nature? que, dans cette nature, tout est rapport, proportion, harmonie et agrégation? qu’elle lie, rassemble et compose toujours, même en décomposant, car ses lois ne dorment jamais, tandis que l’homme qui analyse, soit comme chimiste, soit comme raisonneur, ne peut qu’observer et suspendre, décomposer et tuer ? Que dire d’un architecte qui, chargé d’élever un édifice, briserait les pierres pour y trouver des sels, de l’air et une base terreuse, et qui nous offrirait ainsi une analyse au lieu d’une maison ? Le prisme qui dissèque la lumière gâte à nos yeux le spectacle de la nature. <…><164>
Ils ont cru cependant, ces philosophes, que définir les hommes, c’était plus que les réunir; que les émanciper, c’était plus que les gouverner, et qu’enfin les soulever, c’était plus que les rendre heureux. Ils ont renversé des États pour les régénérer, et disséqué des hommes vivants pour les mieux connaître.
C’est en vain que Platon (car la Grèce avait souffert aussi des débordements de cette philosophie) leur avait dit que ce n’était point à eux à faire des vers et de la musique, mais d’en parler, puisque leur philosophie était discoureuse; c’est en vain que Zenon avait prononcé que le vrai philosophe n’est qu’un bon acteur, également propre au rôle de roi et de sujet, de maître et d’esclave, de riche et de pauvre : car, en effet, il est de la vraie philosophie de faire tout bien, et non de trouver tout mal ; c’est en vain, dis-je, que les hommes étaient bien avertis sur la nature et la différence des deux philosophies : il s’est fait dans toutes les têtes un changement qui a préparé la révolution dont les philosophes ont été brusquement promoteurs, guides et victimes, révolution dans laquelle ils ont pensé qu’on pouvait dénaturer tout sans rien détruire, ou tout détruire sans péril, et hasarder le genre humain sans crime.

LinkOctober 2, 2009

History in a book

Frontispiece to Bradford’s Journal.
Credit: Doris Ulman.
I’ve been reading Gamaliel Bradford’s Journal the last few days. Bradford was born in 1863 and died in 1932: old enough to have met Emerson, young enough to have seen the first talkies. (He didn’t meet Emerson, so far as I know, but he did write a page of his journal in the Old Manse, at the table where Emerson and Hawthorne had written years before.) He’s best known for his “psychography”, portraits in the manner of Sainte-Beuve. Those I’ve read (in Bare Souls, a book on authors seen through their letters) are quite good. They’re old-fashioned, I suppose. Bradford, in the years he was writing his portraits, was quite consciously not of his time. You won’t find him speculating on his subjects’ bed-partners, or showing them up in the manner of Lytton Strachey. He was no prude, but he had too sympathetic a temperament for dirt-digging. His books were popular enough, to judge from the numbers I see at the used book sites; nowadays I doubt that anyone reads him except the odd Americanist or accidental readers like me.
The copy I’m reading has no dust jacket, but someone has pasted pieces of it inside the front cover. That someone might be Mr. von Wackerbarth:
This bookplate I found tucked near the back. Did Henry von Wackerbarth really have almost 9000 books? (At least one other book from his library still exists: a history of Kansas and the Santa Fe trade by Max Greene, published in 1856. ) The address is in an old suburb called Beverly. An archive of photos from the Chicago Daily News includes a photo of 9533 Longwood, a large detached house surrounded by trees, the residence of John E. W. Wayman, state’s attorney. Henry von Wackerbarth probably lived in something similar. In 1928 there was a park across the street (according to a land-value map at the Ridge Historical Society). A comfortable existence, one would guess.
Henry von Wackerbarth not only read books, he wrote them. A search turned up the following:
The history of Adams County,
a history of the county—its cities, towns, etc.
A biographical directory of its citizens, war record of its
volunteers of the late rebellion; general
and local statistics, 
portraits of early settlers and prominent men.
History of the northwest, history of illinois,
map of Adams County, constitution of the United States,
miscellaneous matters, etc., etc.
Henry Von Wackerbarth
315 Royal Insurance Building, Chicago, Ill.

Murray, Williamson & Phelps,
85 Washington St.
The page, at Saints Alive, a group that tries to return Mormons to the Christian Church, includes a section from the History on the “Mormon wars” at Nauvoo, Illinois. I’m not sure that this Henry von Wackerbarth and the Henry of the bookplate are the same person. Bradford’s book was published in 1933, fifty-four years after the History was published. Our author would have been either precocious or long-lived. Or it may be that the bookplate wasn’t originally attached to Bradford’s Journal.
Books are mechanically reproduced. Fresh off the press, they lack the uniqueness which lends to artworks what Walter Benjamin called their “aura”. It would be a defect if one copy differed from another. But a book is a physical object. In its passage through time it accumulates individuality, you might say, and takes on more and more the character of an artwork. This is evident in the case of signed or annotated copies, like the many books in whose margins and endpapers Coleridge deposited his thoughts. But even the most ordinary can become, for you or me, an “association copy”, bearing marks that set it apart from its mass-produced siblings.
Digitization puts an end to that. History is noise; digital reproduction is noiseless. That is an advantage, but it has the effect of erasing history. Time cannot improve a digitized work; time can only degrade it. If the medium is decrepit, the file is unreadable. Time destroys printed works too. I have a few books of which I am very likely to be the last owner, books without covers, books whose spines are several times broken, books on paper that will disintegrate in another generation or so. But a well-made book that has not had too hard a life becomes a document of its own reception in a way that no digital file can be.
That’s not to say that works in a digital medium can’t show their age. Take a look at some of my old pages at the Wayback archive. A bit quaint in their technique…
() Update: The indefatigable PhFn research team has found more Wackerbarth books. The first of these is worth a look for its own sake:
Johann Huebner. Reales Staats-, Zeitungs- und Conversations-Lexicon. Darinnen so wohl Die Religionen und geistlichen Orden, die Reiche und Staaten, Meere, Seen, Insuln, Flüsse, Städte, Festungen, Schlösser, Häfen, Berge, Vorgebürge, Pässe und Wälder, die Linien Deutscher hoher Häuser, die in verschiedenen Ländern übliche so geistliche als weltliche Ritter-Orden, Wapen, Reichs-Täge, gelehrte Societäten, Gerichte, Civil- und Militair-Chargen zu Wasser und Lande, der Unterscheid der Meilen, vornehmsten Müntzen, Maaß und Gewichte, die zur Kriegs-Bau-Kunst, Artillerie, Feld-Lägern, Schlacht-Ordnungen, Belagerungen, Schiffahrten, Unterscheid der Schiffe und der dazu gehörigen Sachen gebräuchlichen Benennungen; Als auch Andere in Zeitungen und täglicher Conversation. Leipzig: Gleditsch, 1744.
I think what impresses me most is the author’s confidence that all these things will come up in täglicher (daily) conversation. Hübner’s work is $1100. If that would leave your pocketbook a bit flat, for $50 you can buy another book owned by Wackerbarth:
Carl Theodor Wettstein, ed. Was Abraham Lincoln an infidel? The religious character of Abraham Lincoln as it appears in the light of his spoken and written word. Boston: Cm. M. Clark, 1910.
The answer, by the way, is no.

LinkSeptember 3, 2006

Writing gone awry

Disons franchementShall I speak freely? Most people (Ancients and Moderns alike) do not remember, in the middle or at the end of a letter, what they said at the beginning. Because they themselves understand what they mean to say, they imagine that this first understanding suffices, and that it is conveyed immediately to another. Not thinking, then, of any clarification in particular, they usually say but half of what they mean. And it is certain that a word left at the end of the pen, an omitted particle, a forgotten connection, breaks up the train of reasoning, puts sense out of order, and leaves the reader to divine what was meant. ce qui en est. La pluspart des gens (& des Anciens, comme des Modernes) ne se souviennent pas au milieu, où à la fin d’une Lettre de ce qu’ils ont dit au commencement. Parce qu’ils s’entendent eux-mesmes, ils s’imaginent que cette premiere intelligence suffit, & que d’abord elle passe d’eux à autruy. Ainsi ne songeant point à un particulier eclaircissement d’ordinaire ils ne disent qu’à demy ce qu’ils veulent dire. Et il est certain qu’un mot laissé au bout de la plume, qu’une particule obmise, qu’une liaison oubliée, detache la suite du raisonnement, met le sens en desordre, & donne à deviner au Lecteur.
Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac (lnglabfr.png) was born in 1597, one year after Descartes, and died in 1654. Among philosophers, he is known as the author of Socrate Chrétien (1652), and as the recipient of letters from Descartes. The Entretiens were written in the 1640s and 1650s. The later ones followed upon Balzac’s retirement from courtly politics and literary polemics; in them Balzac reflects upon his career and on the literary life in general. The Entretiens were first published in 1657. As their name implies, they were addressed to particular correspondents and often commemorated particular occasions. By the standards of the period, their style is informal, like that of Montaigne’s Essais; but they exhibit too much erudition and stylistic self-consciousness for us to call them that.

LinkJune 16, 2006

The olds…

A few unphilosophical items picked up over the last month or so:
  • The end of info-mac
    It’s odd to be nostalgic about something that was once part of the radiant future. Adam Engst, the author of Tidbits, a long-running newsletter on the Macintosh and things related to it, announces the end of info-mac (see also Gordon Watts’s now-ended weblog at Quantum Diaries).
    When the Mac first started in 1984, the only method of distribution for software was floppy disks. If you wanted to try out some shareware, you either picked up a compilation of some sort from a user group or had one sent by mail, with stamps and all that, from the developer. Later, when dial-up access through Compuserve or AOL became common, you could—at some cost—download software from various bulletin boards. Info-mac was one of the first. Now services like MacUpdate and VersionTracker fulfill that function, and many programs will check for updates of themselves. Bugfixes and small improvements can be distributed immediately. The old machinery of versions, often heavily promoted, costing hundreds of dollars (as Adobe’s do) now seems sluggish and superfluous.
  • Reclaim Democracy
    Not long ago I expressed skepticism about corporate personhood. If, as Milton Friedman argues, corporations (or rather corporate executives) have no other legitimate aim than to generate profit for stockholders, I see no reason why such an entity should be granted any of the rights granted to people in our Constitution. No free speech, no campaign contributions. Reclaim Democracy includes documents on the history of corporate personhood, news items, and links to organizations campaigning against corporate personhood.
  • Anthropic arguments
    Peter Woit at Not Even Wrong surveys some recent attempts at anthropic cosmology by Frank Wilczek, Max Tegmark, and Anthony Aguirre. Woit is skeptical about the claims of string theory; not surprisingly, he finds anthropic arguments wanting. (See also Fabian Besnard at mathéphysique.)
  • Earmarks
    Source: Lazlo Kovacs
    More specifically, early modern “earmarks”. Items on cultural history. For example: reading machines, Agostino Ramelli’s in particular. I wish I had one. I wish I had space for one.
  • A tasteful grey
    Why is the brain segregated into white and grey matter? The answer, it seems, is speed.
  • Feuilles de route
    Thierry Beinstingel. Une “tentative d’exposition du travail littéraire à la vue de tous”.
  • François Truffaut’s grave
    From john© at Flickr. Truffaut died in 1984.

LinkJanuary 25, 2006

The Watermelon Vendor

An entry at The Cassandra Pages. In less than 700 words, a distant world is brought to life, in a present no less vivid.

LinkSeptember 9, 2005

Material falsity

What follows are some remarks inspired by Lili Alanen’s recent book, Descartes’s concept of mind. I haven’t reviewed the literature on material falsity, and make no claim concerning the novelty of what follows.
The phrase ‘material falsity’ appears in Meditations 3, in the midst of the first causal proof of the existence of God. The argument of that proof is that the idea of a perfect being, which the meditator finds in himself (and which therefore exists, in the manner in which things exist in thought) could have as its ultimate cause only a perfect being. I imagine that most readers will have encountered it.


LinkJune 18, 2005 | TrackBack (0)

Lamp & blank paper

One philosopher whose œuvre I would feel fortunate to emulate is Gaston Bachelard. Among philosophers Bachelard is best known for his writings in épistémologie, a field that has no exact analogue in anglophone philosophy, overlapping as it does with philosophy of science, history of science, and the theory of knowledge. Among literary theorists he is better known for his studies in what he called “psychanalyse”—the investigation of the imagination and its objects, mostly through literature.
La flamme d’une chandelle was the last work of Bachelard published in his lifetime, a reprise, in a way, of La psychanalyse du feu, his first work on the imagination. It has the feeling of a farewell, not only to a long life of teaching and writing, but to an era in which the nocturnal student read by the ever-varying light of a candle or oil-lamp, and not by the electric glow of filaments or phosphors, more reliable than flame, certainly, at least in the wealthy parts of the world, but less suggestive to the imagination.
The last chapter of this last book is an epilogue, “Ma lampe et mon papier blanc”. It begins:
En se souvenant d’un lointain passé de travail, en réimaginant les images si nombreuses mais si monotones du travailleur obstiné, lisant et méditant sous la lampe, on se prend à vivre comme si l’on était le personnage unique d’un tableau. Une chambre aux murs flous et comme resserrée sur son centre, concentrée autour du méditant assis devant la table éclairée par la lampe. Durant une longue vie, le tableau a reçu mille variantes. Mais il garde son unité, sa vie centrale. C’est maintenant une image constante où se fondent les souvenirs et les rêveries. L’être rêvant s’y concentre pour se souvenir de l’être qui travaillait. Est-ce réconfort, est-ce nostalgie que de se souvenir des petites chambres où l’on travaillait, où l’on avait l’énergie pageturnsymbol.png de travailler bien. Le véritable space du travail solitaire, c’est dans une petite chambre, le cercle éclairé par la lampe. Jean de Boschère savait cela, qui écrivait: «Il n’y a qu’une chambre étroite qui permette le travail.» Et la lampe de travail met toute la chambre dans les dimensions de la table. Comme la lampe de jadis, en mes souvenirs, concentre la demeure, refait les solitudes du courage, ma solitude de travailleur!
Translation: “In remembering a distant past of labor, in imagining again the images, so numerous but so monotone, of the obstinate worker, reading and meditating under the lamp, one takes to living as if one were the unique figure in a painting. A room with vague walls and as if wound up about its center, concentrated around the meditator seated before the table lit by the lamp.
During a long life the painting has undergone a thousand variations. But it keeps its unity, its vital center. It is now a constant image into which memories and daydreams are fused. The one who dreams concentrates so as to remember the one who worked. Solace it may be, or nostalgia, to remember the little rooms where one worked, where one had the energy to work well. The true space of solitary work is in a little room, in the circle lit by its lamp. Jean de Boschère know this well when he wrote: ‘Only in a narrow room can one work.’ And the work-lamp fits the whole room into the dimensions of the table. How the lamp of yesteryear, in my memories, concentrates my dwelling, and refashions the solitudes of courage—my work-solitude!”
Books mentioned
    Bachelard, Gaston. La flamme d’une chandelle. PUF, 1961 (reprinted in the collection Quadrige, 2003). · 2130539017 · English: The flame of a candle. Trans. Joni Caldwell. Dallas: Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 1989. · 0911005153
    Bachelard, Gaston. La psychanalyse du feu. Paris: Gallimard, 1938 (reprinted in the collection Idées, 1949). · 2070323250 · English: The psychoanalysis of fire. Boston: Beacon Press, 1987. · 0807064610
Online sources

LinkJanuary 8, 2005

About those ruins…

Au monastère d'Assise, un moine avait un accent grossier, qui puait sa Calabre. Ses compagnons se moquaient de lui. Or il était susceptible; il en vint à ne plus ouvrir la bouche que lorsqu'il s'agissait a'annoncer un accident, un malheur, enfin quelque événement en soi assez grave pour que son accent eût chance de passer inaperçu. Cependant, il aimait parler: il lui arriva d'inventer des catastrophes. Comme il était sincère, il alla jusqu'à en provoquer.
“At the Assisi monastery, one of the monks had a heavy accent that stank of his native Calabria. His companions made fun of him. The mockery got under his skin; he reached the point of opening his mouth only to announce an accident, a misfortune—in short, an event grave enough in itself that his accent might pass unnoticed. But he liked to talk. Eventually he invented catastrophes. Being sincere, he even went so far as to provoke them.”

LinkDecember 13, 2004

Blogs I like

Not philosophy blogs, but what I read when (believe it or not) I’d rather read something else.
  • hotelplage.png
    Hôtel de la plage: Well-written, nice design. One entry per page. Infra, “Ce que la chouette me dit”. See the screenshot on the right.
    —In French. Roughly once a week, with gaps. Addendum 8 Apr 2005: Now very infrequent.
  • Language Hat and Language Log: Two blogs on language. Language fascinates me in all sorts of ways—formal languages, natural languages, poetics, rhetoric. My BA is in linguistics; within linguistics, I favored phonology. But by the time I finished I realized that what I liked most were the swampy contentious regions bordering on Philosophy. I think a little bird told me, too, that I was utterly unfitted for fieldwork. Except on dead languages. So now I can read these weblogs for fun, unlike philosophy blogs, the reading of which bears always the faint odor of Duty.
    —Mostly in English. Daily.
  • Parisian Smile: une femme de presque trente à Paris. Des photos aussi: cuisine, Moyen-Orient, musique. Une échantillon:
    Les fêtes de fin d’années approchent à grand pas, les boulevards s’illuminent des milles et un feux, les magasins parisiens se parent de leur plus beaux atours pour attirer à eux carte bleue et gros billet, and last but not least les familles commencent à élaborer les plans de tables pour leurs diners de réveillons. Cette époque, bénie pour le commun des mortels, est une épreuve pour la SFF (Sans Famille Fixe) que je suis. Des années durant nous allions naturellement passer les congés de Noël chez nos tantes mais ces habitudes là deviennent de plus en plus obsolètes.
    —In French. Daily, with gaps.
  • Les pensées de Zénon: Literature and art, mostly. Amply illustrated.
    —In French. Almost daily.
  • Plep: commented links, mostly to sites on literature, art, and history. Well worth checking every few days.
    —In English. Daily.
  • Ramage: commented links again, this time mostly to sites containing pictures, typically of things past. Also well worth checking.
    —In English. Almost daily.

LinkNovember 5, 2004