Languages

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Although I’ve kept up my French (listening to Radio France Internationale), I’ve let slip the Italian – nothing to aim for, as the family holiday to Italia is off for another year (skint). Imagine my surprise today when I sheepishly logged into my Italian course on Memrise and found I can recall the lot – and arguably better than last time I tried it nearly three months ago.

What an amazing thing the brain is. It just quietly soaks stuff up, sticks it on an empty shelf; and then serves it up just when you least expect it.

Like most tongue-tied Britons, I find it easy to be scared off by languages; but we all speak at least one. With learning apps like Memrise, and foreign language radio (after this I’m tuning into Euronews Radio in Italian again) there’s a whole world of expression to explore. Meraviglioso.

Obscurantism

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I congratulated a colleague yesterday on some lovely prose. His concise, interesting and informative writing made me happily read about 80 Moments which changed history – learning a lot in the process.

This morning, I read another piece of quasi-Academic writing; but which was much more of a slog. It was saying some important things, but in a rather portentous – even pretentious style. The few key points, could have been made a lot more simply.

Then, by happenstance I moved onto to a super article on ‘Obscurantism’ in the equally super Philosophy Now magazine. The question it poses is: when is being complex and hard to decode legitimate, useful; even necessary – and when is it plain unhelpful.

Here’s some of what Siobhan Lyons has to say:

‘Obscurantism’ can indeed be an effective manoeuvre, provoking greater thought-processes and intellectual investigation.

This couldn’t be illustrated more clearly than in Rembrandt’s The Holy Family with a Curtain (1646). I am less concerned with the religious meanings of this painting than I am about the curtain itself; a seemingly innocuous, pointless part of the work, and yet it provokes the viewer to wonder what lies behind it.

The curtain, blood red and purposefully pulled partly to the side, teases the viewer, offering not even a partial glimpse of what it completely obscures. The Virgin is plainly seen; and there is Joseph, semi-obscured in the background, near the curtain; but whatever is behind the curtain itself is left unanswered.

The painting thus features three forms of creative depiction: the Virgin’s clear visibility, Joseph’s semi-obscured form, and the curtain itself, a symbol of obscurantism, or rather, of the ability of obscurity to be creative, by emphasising the ambiguity that so often confronts us, which may however be the source of great art, and indeed philosophy.

For the greatest philosophies are aware of their own limits – aware of when they cannot answer the questions their philosophers ask. As Wittgenstein stated, language must be beset by certain limits.

So obscurity in language can be seen as not always self-defeating, but, ironically, as sometimes illuminating. Moreover, if language were a purely functional tool for communication, we would cease to have literature as we understand it.

If all curtains in all art were pulled completely aside to expose what lies behind them, then the need for imagination would deteriorate. This also explains why good writers are those who not only have a masterful grasp of language, but who also know how to pull it apart and put it back together in different ways.

Nicely put. Not everything in life, thought or Art can be expressed simply; and some things can’t be expressed at all. The art is in knowing which. But also, I think, in having a try. Only practice makes more perfect.

Writing

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Is there a better thing than writing? While I’m not with the 20th century British philosophers who said language is all there is, I am with Aquinas. He’d say that, along with body and soul, language is a defining part of the human experience.

20th century norms made writing a minority sport – one for the professional. The rise of social media in the 21st century means we can all have a go.

I find if I don’t get the chance to write something, the day feels unfulfilled. And if (rarely) I’ve a moment with nothing I have to do, writing – or reading someone else’s writing – is the first thing I want to do.

For twenty years – from university to my 42nd year – I didn’t write anything for my own pleasure at all. Thank goodness for the invention of iPhone as my carry along notebook. I couldn’t be happier than when tapping out a bit of text with my right thumb.

King James Bible

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Four hundred years
of the King James Bible.
The blood sweat and tears
Of six writing panels
Produced a text
Which united a kingdom
To post-Elizabethan revival.
Still read today,
Words of great majesty
Hell, fire and brimstone
Meet faith, hope and charity
A piece of England’s history
And linguistic gift to the world.
Can’t vouch for the science
But there’s power in the words.

Having read an interesting article about the origins of the King James Bible, I’ve decided to give it a proper read. Aside from its obvious religious role, it is the origin of so many phrases and sayings we still use today.

The skin of my teeth
How are the mighty fallen
Be horribly afraid
From time to time
As a lamb to the slaughter
Beat their swords into ploughshares
Turned the world upside down
A thorn in the flesh
Fell flat on his face
Get thee behind me
A man after his own heart
Set thine house in order

It’s interesting to read passages which are completely familiar, and not. Also to note things which myth, custom and the Disneyfication of culture have added to popular folklore but aren’t actually there – no unicorns perish in Noah’s floods, just a lot of un-named things which ‘creepethed on the earth’.

It’s also remarkable how little time, and how few words, are spent on massively significant and controversial topics – creation for example. The language though is rich, terse and magisterial.

A life’s work. For a disputed King and his ecclesiastical writing panels, quite literally.

Philia

I do feel – and feel is the right word – that Herbert McCabe’s ‘On Aquinas’ deserves a wider audience. So many important themes, from so many thinkers, rendered limpid in a thesis all of his own.

Of course there’s Aristotle in there. And as the title suggests, we are constantly accompanied by Aquinas. But, for me, it’s Herbert McCabe who shines through as having put together his own picture of what constitutes the human condition, in what I’d take as a summation of his life’s work.

I noted yesterday that people read more pulp fiction on Kindles than they’d dare have on their bookshelf or be seen reading in public. But the opposite is also the case. Truth is I’d never have found Herbert McCabe or bought his book without the web, connected devices and impulsive instant gratification via electronic delivery.

McCabe makes a powerful case for ‘philia’, mutual care and fellow-feeling, as the right basis for our relationships – not the functional rights and duties of justice and the law.

Justice is the minimum duty we owe to ‘strangers’, ‘philia’ is the care, respect, love, friendship, reasonable accommodation and interdependence we have with other people which constitute ‘humanity’ and ‘society’. Laws imperfectly capture the statutory minimum, ‘philia‘ is the gold standard for people, politics and society.

Stood on a grey suburban station platform this morning (the car’s bust again) I looked at the different shapes and sizes of punters, mums and pinstriped professionals all focused on getting their train. There were moments of ‘philia’. A shy ‘See you tomorrow‘ to the man serving a women her daily coffee, a jolly exchange between Ticket Collector and middle aged vamp.

Through the lens of ‘philia’ people look different. We judge less, tolerate more and look beyond face value. McCabe was right to remind us of this.

Language

Re-reading a chapter of Herbert McCabe’s ‘On Aquinas’ last night, the outline of a new understanding emerged from the complex conceptual haze of the ‘philosophy of language’.

Language is the means through which we transcend individual experience and share our lives, ideas and culture with others. So far so obvious – Stephen Hawking’s is a brilliant mind but without a twitch sensor and a computer voice he’d be lost to us, alone trapped in his own head.

McCabe, following Aquinas and Wittgenstein considers language as exclusively ‘public’. It exists outside and apart from the sense perceptions of people – it has to otherwise it would not work as a means of sharing understanding.

So while my ‘red’ might look and feel different to yours (although probably not that much) as soon as we name it, it ceases to be my ‘property’ and becomes a shared one. As McCabe points out, my sense perceptions are my own, but my words ‘belong’ to the English language and are public, shared and ‘intersubjective’ – i.e. most people would agree on what they mean, otherwise they wouldn’t work.

Why is this so important? Well as Aristotle said: ‘It us the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it’.

Similarly it is the mark of an animal with language to be able to describe, contemplate and imagine actions, not simply to feel, jump and act. Without language there is no reflection, just action and reaction.

For Aristotle, Aquinas, Wittgenstein and McCabe, language is not just a fancy tail feather or ornament on human intellect – it is human intellect. Language is the difference between pure instinct and intelligence, communication and culture.

The penny has dropped for me – something I didn’t ‘get’ when I did philosophy at University. David Hume and others persuaded me that sensations come first and language just describes them. But I now reckon it’s the other way around – language marks off and frames sensations so we can contemplate them. Language is not just communicating, it’s everything.

Language also connects us across boundaries of space and time. Herbert McCabe lives on through his limpid, lively philosophical prose. Like Montaigne, you feel you know the man when you read what McCabe has written. Shrewd, perhaps a little stubborn, quick-witted, sharp – and for a monk, disarmingly worldly and funny.

As Aristotle said, we are we repeatedly do. Perhaps, also, we are what we repeatedly write – poetry, prose or philosophy.

Sacre Bleu

A splendid weekend en famille à Paris was marred only by two extraordinarily slooowly served meals. I’d write Zzzzz. But with four children, from 4 to 8 years old, over an hour of waiting – each time – for any food was more @!&£.

I was less bothered than the people I was with. Perhaps because having lived in Paris, I find surly service strangely reassuring. As a Parisien taxi driver told me on my last visit:

God, he is deciding to make a very beautiful country. He is making it very big and putting beautiful countryside and animals in it. He is giving it very good food and very good drink. But then he is realising every-body will want to live here. Merde. So he has an ideé! He puts French people there, so nobody else will want to stay!

In fact once you get the hang of French ‘pipple’ they are quite straightforward. First contact is often brusque – borderline rude – to a British taste (or Australian since we were with Aussies). But give as good as you get and add a bit of humour and you’re ‘best mates’ in no time. It’s as if there’s a threshold of rudeness, which you have to meet, to join ‘Le club français’. Too polite and you’re not worth the bother.

An inscription on the pillared back of Versailles shouts out in capital letters ‘To all the glories of France’. You can’t beat Paris: the Tour Eiffel, the Champs Élysées, crazy driving, le hot dog, le steak frites et le petit café to finish.

Add to that the people. Splendidly rude. But often warm, once the ‘first joust’ is done. It wouldn’t be la belle France without them.

Rhetoric

I’ve been doing a lot of presentations on strategy in the last few weeks. The good news is people say it’s all very clear. They like it. “A lot better than it was too” some say. I acknowledge, slightly wistfully, that our old strategy was bigger on soaring rhetoric – and I miss that a bit. But not much. Clear and credible is better.

Reading Montaigne and Aristotle on Rhetoric I can see why. Montaigne first:

Eloquence most flourished at Rome when the public affairs were in the worst condition and most disquieted with intestine commotions; as a free and untilled soil bears the worst weeds.

Oh dear – suggests I may have been part of indigestion in our organisational intestines. Our rich intellectual soil allowed many rhetorical flowers to bloom. Perhaps some tilling was called for.

Aristotle for his part, in his encyclopaedic and comprehensive way, offers three volumes on Rhetoric covering it’s function, forms and stylistic niceties.

A dense but magisterial account on the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy runs through Aristotle’s work. In essence the purpose of rhetoric is to persuade. It is neutral and can be used well or badly and for good or for ill. The Rhetorician, like the physician should be judged, not, on whether he or she saves every patient or wins every argument, but on his or her use of the relevant tools, interventions and skills.

The Stanford encyclopaedia offers that persuasion itself depends on (a) the character of the speaker (b) the emotional state of the hearer (c) in the argument (logos) itself. The speaker can employ his or her skills as a stimulus for the sought emotion (pathos) from an audience. However, along with pathos, the speaker must also exhibit ethos, which for Aristotle encompasses wisdom (phronesis), virtue (arete), and good will (eunoia).

Persuasion is accomplished whenever the speech is recieved in such a way as to render the speaker worthy of credence. If the speaker appears to be credible, the audience will form the second-order judgment that propositions put forward by the credible speaker are true or acceptable. The catch is for it to be true Rhetoric the speaker must accomplish these effects by what he or she says; it is not necessary that he is actually virtuous: on the contrary, a preexisting good character cannot be counted part of the technical means of persuasion.

So is Rhetoric mainly about cheating and what you can get away with? And if so why would a man of Aristotle’s leanings engage with it? Well as the Stanford Encyclopaedia explains it:

It could be objected that rhetoric is only useful for those who want to outwit their audience and conceal their real aims, since someone who just wants to communicate the truth could be straightforward and would not need rhetorical tools. This, however, is not Aristotle’s point of view: even those who just try to establish what is just and true need the help of rhetoric when they are faced with a public audience.

Aristotle tells us that it is impossible to teach such an audience, even if the speaker had the most exact knowledge of the subject. The audience of a public speech consists of ordinary people who are not able to follow an exact proof based on the principles of a science. Further, such an audience can easily be distracted by factors that do not pertain to the subject at all; sometimes they are receptive to flattery or just try to increase their own advantage. And this situation becomes even worse if the constitution, the laws, and the rhetorical habits in a city are bad (as in Montaigne’s Rome above).

Finally, most of the topics that are usually discussed in public speeches do not allow of exact knowledge, but leave room for doubt; especially in such cases it is important that the speaker seems to be a credible person and that the audience is in a sympathetic mood. For all those reasons, affecting the decisions of juries and assemblies is a matter of persuasiveness, not of knowledge.

But, reassuringly, at the heart of Aristotle’s approach to rhetoric – as you would expect of the man – is a belief in substance over style:

Aristotle joins Plato in criticizing contemporary manuals of rhetoric. Previous theorists of rhetoric gave most of their attention to methods outside the subject; they taught how to slander, how to arouse emotions in the audience, or how to distract the attention of the hearers from the subject.

Aristotelian rhetoric is different in that it is centred on a rhetorical kind of proof, the ‘enthymeme’ which he called the most important means of persuasion. Since people are most strongly convinced when they suppose that something has been proven, there is no need for the orator to confuse or distract the audience by the use of emotional appeals, etc.

In Aristotle’s view an orator will be even more successful when he just picks up the convincing aspects of a given issue, thereby using commonly-held opinions as premises. Since people have a natural disposition for the true there is no unbridgeable gap between commonly-held opinions and what is true.

For Aristotle, the speaker does need to recognise that his or her audience may not have the habit of scientific proofs. He also concedes that long chains of logical inferences might not work well either. But, in his view, every man is open to bridging the gap between commonly-held opinions and the truth. So good rhetoric draws on both.

As for style, as with his ethics it’s all about the ‘golden mean’. In a nutshell for Aristotle the good style is ‘clear in a way that is neither too banal nor too dignified, but appropriate’. Nice.

I conclude the reasons I need less rhetoric these days is 1) our organisational intestines are in better order 2) more of what we are doing accords with commonly-held beliefs and thus 3) I need far fewer appeals to emotion and long chains of inferences to make my case. All that’s left is to add a spot of Ethos and Pathos and the job is done. Time for a rhetorical rest.

Poppies

On holiday in France, I started reading Herbert McCabe on St Thomas Aquinas. I’d heard Sir Anthony Kenny in a ‘Philosophy Bites’ podcast describing Aquinas as deserving as much attention from we moderns as Aquinas himself paid to Aristotle in his day – a great medieval foundation on which to build.

On a prominent bookshelf, in the holiday home we were staying in, Aquinas merited two volumes – Aquinas I and II – in the leather bound ‘Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World’. Only one other philosopher got two whole volumes… you guessed it – Aristotle. Good references then.

I’m too early into Aquinas to know how much is him and how much is McCabe building on him. But reading McCabe’s account, a whole series of philosophical concepts and ideas which I ‘learned’ at University are now a lot clearer to me.

Souls, existence and being are all brought to life, but also the significance of language. I never really got why modern philosophers were so hung up on language. Yes it’s an important skill, yes it codifies our world, but presenting it like maths is to science – underpinning everything we are, think and can know of the world – seemed to overrate ‘words’ to my undergraduate mind.

Take ‘redness’ I can accept your idea of red might overlap with mine, or be subtly different or be missing altogether if you’re colour blind. I can further accept my dog or a leopard might see it differently again, and a plant not at all. But as a good post enlightenment ‘atomist’, I felt ‘redness’ was ‘real’ not subjective. Whatever jingling of photons against molecules it is, ‘red’ for me was the name for a real ‘observable’ characteristic of the handsome poppies dotted in the wheatfields of Charente-Maritime.

I’m attracted by McCabe’s account that the big difference between a car and a cheetah, is one is made of parts, the other is only comprehensible as a whole. One can be taken apart and put back together again, the other can’t. One can exist uniquely as the only one of it’s kind, the other requires mates, progenitors and offspring to come to exist and continue to truly exist.

And so it is with humans. What we call ‘red’ is the product of millions of years of evolution and thousands of years of language – in an unbroken physical, linguistic and cultural chain. This unbroken chain can be ‘atomised’ into its constituent parts – which certainly helps us to grapple with what is and isn’t ‘red’, but that doesn’t really capture the phenomenon or the ‘phenomenology’.

There is no ‘red’ without humans to see it and a shared human language to describe it. We can describe the photons bouncing off the lattice of the petal, hitting the retina and sparking the neurones. Using language we can think hard about it and describe it to others. But before there was language to describe it, think it and name it there was no ‘red’. There were plants but no poppies.

What I call a poppy, Montaigne would have recognised as a pavot, Aquinas as a papaver and Aristotle as a παπαρούνα. Same sensory apparatus, languages from the same family tree, many common cultural references. Different words, similar – although never exactly the same – human experience: ‘redness’.

Being part of that unbroken chain of evolution, languages, knowledge and ideas is far richer than photons bouncing off a lattice. It’s good to look at the parts, but as Aquinas reminds us, it is the whole which is the special bit.