Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Socratic Humor

Freshman philosophy professors will sometimes discuss 'Socratic irony'. They'll maintain that Socrates would start discussions with people, asking them questions and arguing with their answers. According to these professors, who are only repeating what their elders taught them when they were freshmen, Socrates would pretend to be ignorant and ask questions in order to goad his opponents into trapping themselves into a contradiction. The irony here is supposed to be that good ol' Soc would only be pretending to be ignorant in order to expose the flaws in the thinking of those around him.

Freshman philosophy professors are known for their lack of imagination, and their absolute certainty in their lack.

Reading the dialogues of Plato, especially if you can get your hands on un-bowdlerized versions is revealing. The whole point of philosophy is skepticism - doubt. The constant gnawing away at what you think you know until you discover once again that you don't know anything you thought you did.

Let's not fool ourselves either. I'm not talking about poor bewildered Descartes, pretending in his Meditations and his Discourse on Method to forget everything he thinks he knows so he can start over from the beginning and rediscover everything he was trying to prove in the first place.

Reading through the Symposium, the Phaedrus, and even the Republic, we don't find a simple Socrates determined that he knew better and that he'd show everybody else how wrong they were. We find a lost soul, a man who thinks he might have a clever idea, but who is tormented by the Hell of never bieng sure. He begins dialouges with the others not necessarily with the sole goal of leading them into contradiction, but as a man haunted by the hope that someone else might hold the key to the certainty he's never had. When it comes Socrates's time to hold forth, one reads the air of a man who - if only to himself - adds a question mark to the end of every phrase and every sentence.

But alas, Socrates is truly the wisest of the Greeks, who knows that he knows nothing. Searching as he is for a mind that can set him onto the path towards certainty, he meets only those whose certainty rings hollow. They do not know that they do not know. So he mocks them. Throughout the Apology, he mocks them. Socratic sarcasm, directed at those whose false certainty leads them to judge his uncertainty as blasphemous and unworthy.

But this is not all of the humor of Socrates. The Symposium, a discourse on the nature of beauty itself begins with the participants praising and comparing the relative charms and f***ability of the young men about them, like construction workers on lunch break at a college campus. These are not ivory-tower dwelling ascetics divining the nature of virtue; these are randy guys at a strip club or bar talking dirty. The Republic begins with Soc and friends coming back from a parade, discussing when the last time each took a turn in the sack.

In the other dialouges, we see Soc on the street, battling it out like some casting-call reject from West Side Story. This is not a proud academic. This is a guy looking for truth by chatting up column fluters and midwives, artisans and workmen. Sure, from time to time he'll rub elbows with tyrants, kings, and demogouges, but he'll talk Love, Virtue, or Justice with anybody who'll show up. He's not waiting for someone to holdup a sign, saying "it's philosophy time now, so everybody put on your thinking caps." For Socrates, any time is a good time for philosophy.

So the next time someone starts babbling nonsense to you on the bus, just remember: that may be ol' Socrates, keepin' it real.


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Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Fire of Language, the Light of Words

Hom hum. Another scientific paper; another scientific paper written by someone who was too dedicated to Science! to pay attention to liberal arts classes. "...and this will show", "this shows....", "has shown..." Show, show show, show, show, show... like a demonstrative but plodding metronome.

Writing, even technical writing, doesn't have to be like this. "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug," observed Mark Twain. It's possible to sit down and write like a workman reaching for familiar tools; but it's also possible to write like J. S. Bach expanding three notes into an etude that dances through a universe of possibilities.

Why not, every once in a while, stop showing us things? There are alternatives.

"from this it is obvious that..." Mathematicians and logicians love this one. You'll usually see it signaling the most inscrutable step of the argument or proof. There's an implicit challenge inherent in "it's obvious that..." It's obvious to the writer, obviously; why isn't it obvious to you, dear reader? Are you some sort of mouth-breathing cretin who can't follow the simplest of steps? If it's obvious, obviously the writer is correct. Sit down and learn something, schmuck.

Then there's a Latin duo. Latin's a lovely language; sometimes when you've got a nice concrete word, you can throw any number of prepositions on it as prefixes to create a wealth of new, abstract words. One example is 'planus' meaning a level plain. 'Ex' is 'from' or 'of' or 'out of'. 'Ex+planus' = explain. To explain a thing is to take it from a clear, level plain where everyone can see it. 'Planus' is also where English gains 'plan'. 'Explain' means to unfurl, to smooth out; as if unrolling blueprints or an agenda onto a table so as to take ideas from it.

'Plicare' means to fold or to braid. 'Ex+plicare' is to take something taken out of a fold, as if taking it from a pocket. Explicate is our English derivative. If a thing has many folds, many wrinkles, and is hard to understand, then we have many folds together. 'Cum' = 'with', 'cum' + 'plicare' is to be with folds; to make a thing complicated. If we fold something many times, we will have done 'multi' [many] + 'plicare' = 'multiplication'. But that's okay. Once those folds are taken out, and the thing is unfolded, we'll have 'a' [without] + 'plicare' = 'aplicare'... an application. The folded thing becomes of use.

Elucidate. This one's on the rise, as it ought to be. From 'lucid': clear, simple; ultimately from the Latin 'lux': light. You, dear reader, have been stumbling in a murky darkness, but I, the writer, will elucidate what you have not understood. The fogs will part, light will shine through, and you will see clearly. "I once was lost, but now am found / was blind but now I see." 'Lucid', related through 'lux' to an old friend of ours, the Light Bringer, Lucifer. He, who in myth, brought to humanity knowledge: the knowledge of good and evil. 'Lucifer', also an archaic English word for a match: a dull wooden thing that, with friction, spontaneously brings forth fire and light

Speaking of fire and light, we also find illuminate. From the Latin 'lumina', meaning 'glow'. In the dark days after the fall of Rome, the light of knowledge was lost to the Western world. Those preservers of the heritage of Augustine, the Clunaic and Benedictine monks tended the banked embers of Western thought. And to accompany the black and red words scribed so carefully upon yellowed pages, they added pictures. Pictures of startling color, elaboration, and clarity. They called these drawings illuminations.

Later, Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin would write a new doctorine for mystical Freemasonry and neo-Gnosticism. To describe the surge of knowledge granted to the initiate, he chose 'illumination'. Following his lead, Adam Weishaupt would choose to name his organization - dedicated at first to clarity of thought and an eschewing of clouded superstition - the Ancient Illuminated Seers of Bavaria. They would go on to influence Mozart, and would be some of the first patrons of Beethoven as he brought new light to Western music.

Speaking of pretty pictures, we come to illustrate. From the Romance 'illustare': to draw, but drawing from the Latin 'illus': this + 'lustare': to shine up, to polish, to brighten. To illustrate something is to allow light to reflect and define.

Well written scientific papers don't have to sink under their own gravity. Instead, they can float with levity, as a tissue of language dancing over the fire of words. Don't show me anything anymore, c'mon baby, light my fire.


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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Koans of Doubt

"The wisest of all the Hellenes is Socrates."
-the Pythia of Delphi

"If I am acclaimed the wisest of the Hellenes, it must be because I alone know that I know nothing."
"Several years have now elapsed since I first became aware that I had accepted, even from my youth, many false opinions for true, and that consequently what I afterward based on such principles was highly doubtful; and from that time I was convinced of the necessity of undertaking once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted, and of commencing anew the work of building from the foundation..."
-René Descartes
" 'I became incredulous. Or I regretted having been credulous. I began to doubt.' "

" 'Fool! Only the true initiate knows that he does not know!' "
-Umberto Eco
"To defend everything is to defend nothing."
-Frederick the Great
"Those who are filled with emptiness
Need not fear tigers and rhinos in the wilds,
Nor wear armour and shields in battle;
The rhinoceros finds no place in them for its horn,
The tiger no place for its claw,
The soldier no place for a weapon,
For death finds no place in them."
-Lao Tzu
"Like faith needs a doubt, like a freeway out."
Take up the armor of Socrates, my friends.
-Uzzah the Ox-cart driver


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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Germans can't do comedy?

Normally, I prefer to avoid dumping links and running, but I literally fell on the floor at this. Not for everyone, but if you've ever had to read Kant, Kierkegaard, or Heidegger (but not Nietzsche. Nietzsche is actually quite funny, but puns don't translate well...)

Stars at 3:01 - http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/391553/july-11-2011/tip-wag---john-lennon---german-humor


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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Some modern koans

"A second of reflection can take you to the moon
The slightest hesitation can bring you down in flames
A single spark of passion can change a man forever
A moment in a lifetime is all it takes to break him"
Covenant, "Call the Ships to Port"
"The ball is round. The game lasts ninety minutes. All else is theory."
"I am naked, I have nothing left
my bones are picked clean
and riddled with regret
nothing can touch me
I've nothing left to take
for I am naked
but I can never break"
Assemblage 23, "Naked"
"Nothing can stop me now
'cause I don't care anymore"
Nine Inch Nails "Piggy"
"Loose hold
just let it go
give in
give up
abandon yourself to the flow"
C-Tec "Flowing"
"What's reality compared to me?"
Project Pitchfork "Timekiller"


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Monday, July 4, 2011

Obscure Mathematical Jokes

So, I ordered some books off Amazon that I'd been wanting for a while. One of them was a work by Kurt Goedel. It shipped separately, in a thin envelope. When I opened it, I worried that it might be incomplete.
I was invited to an exhibition of Mandlebrot-style fractal art the other day, but decided not to go. Once you've seen part of it, you've seen it all.
All syllogisms have three parts. Therefore this is not a syllogism,
There are three sets of people in this universe of discourse. Those that ascribe to the law of the excluded middle and those who do not.
How can you tell if a poem was written by a yardstick? Not quite a meter, but always three feet per line.
Two electrons were driving in the country when they were pulled over by a state trooper. The trooper walked up to the car and asked the electron driving, "Do you know how fast you were going?"

"Sure," said the electron.

"Great," sighed the other, "now we're lost."
 So I said, "Hey baby, you've got nice ogives,"

She slapped me, and said, "Don't talk about my fornication in public."
"Finite Simple Group (of Order Two)"
by the Klein Four


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I like to see you smile

If I were prone to bad poetry
and giving in to tired cliche
I would say that one of your smiles
could light the city
for a thousand nights and a night
Good thing, then
that I'm not prone to bad poetry
Especially in free verse.


When joy comes upon her,
her smile flashes into light
Like Columbia at dawn
Or Trinity in desert night.


The most incredible thing
is the animation of her face,
the depth of her eyes,
the purity of her expression.
Enough to wipe my mind
of anything I might say.

When she sardonically pretends to think
to highlight the irony of the world
her mouth turns into a pout
that shatters my breath.
Sweet agony.

But it is her smile,
like a glimpse of salvation.
It begins quietly, a small turning up.
Sweeter anticipation. 

A staring into an endless horizon
a promise of hope
the breath of 'fiat' in 'fiat lux'.

Then the anticipation breaks.
And all that is...

...is light.


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