Tag Archives: Plato

Links: Gaps between words, etc.

1. From a discussion at The New Yorker about the poetry of Rosmarie Waldrop:

The phrase [book title “Gap Gardening”] makes us think hard about the way language works, and about how words catalyze reality, rather than transcribe it. In nature, nothing can come from nothing, but in language it happens all the time.


What I love about Waldrop are the enigmas and paradoxes on every page, the belief that language is most beautiful when it slips or falters, and the sense that these linguistic short circuits most often happen in urgent verbal exchange.

2. Some context to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

3. NY Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan’s final blog post: “Five Things I Won’t Miss at The Times — and Seven I Will”

4. An article about a weird mid-20th Century cultural phenomenon: spanking.

5. NY Times article about how messages written on vase shards inform Bible scholarship.

6. Plato’s Academy versus Diogenes the Cynic: 2 ways of doing philosophy.

7. Brains aren’t computers because brains are analog: How brain capacity isn’t understood yet.

8. The Tree of Life is still being remodeled.

9. Some subjects “underrepresented in contemporary fiction” include joy —

“In our insistence on despair as the most authentic iteration of experience, we risk writing fiction that is hamstrung in its ability to represent our humanity with the necessary breadth and nuance. The despairing self, characterized by alienation and misery, is limited and incomplete, and not a particularly accurate representation of the lushness of life as it is lived, mingled thing that it is”

— and characters beyond the “bourgeois” —

“a writer might free herself from the tired pursuit of fiction as a matter of professional advancement and set out in quest of the stories that don’t get told”

10. A review of “At the Existentialist Cafe” points out that the author, Sarah Bakewell, “shapes her answers in the form of biographical narratives, because her central theme is that the large impersonal ideas pursued by much modern philosophy are less profound and illuminating than the varied and conflicting truths found in stories of individual lives.”

Humanities ‘keep us from being trapped by our own desire for certainty’

A clear statement of the value of humanities from someone who teaches a course in “Greatest Hits of Western Civilization” — Sophocles, Plato, Thucydides, Shakespeare, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Mill, Marx, Nietzsche, William James, Freud, Keynes, Eliot  — to engineering and science students:

But it is precisely because science is so powerful that we need the humanities now more than ever. In your science, mathematics and engineering classes, you’re given facts, answers, knowledge, truth. Your professors say, “This is how things are.” They give you certainty. The humanities, at least the way I teach them, give you uncertainty, doubt and skepticism.

The humanities are subversive. They undermine the claims of all authorities, whether political, religious or scientific. This skepticism is especially important when it comes to claims about humanity, about what we are, where we came from, and even what we can be and should be. Science has replaced religion as our main source of answers to these questions. Science has told us a lot about ourselves, and we’re learning more every day.

But the humanities remind us that we have an enormous capacity for deluding ourselves. They also tell us that every single human is unique, different than every other human, and each of us keeps changing in unpredictable ways. The societies we live in also keep changing–in part because of science and technology! So in certain important ways, humans resist the kind of explanations that science gives us.

The humanities are more about questions than answers, and we’re going to wrestle with some ridiculously big questions in this class. Like, What is truth anyway? How do we know something is true? Or rather, why do we believe certain things are true and other things aren’t? Also, how do we decide whether something is wrong or right to do, for us personally or for society as a whole?

Also, what is the meaning of life? What is the point of life? Should happiness be our goal? Well, what the hell is happiness? And should happiness be an end in itself or just a side effect of some other more important goal? Like gaining knowledge, or reducing suffering?

Each of you has to find your own answer to these questions. Socrates, one of the philosophers we’re going to read, said wisdom means knowing how little you know. Socrates was a pompous ass, but there is wisdom in what he says about wisdom.

If I do my job, by the end of this course you’ll question all authorities, including me. You’ll question what you’ve been told about the nature of reality, about the purpose of life, about what it mean to be a good person. Because that, for me, is the point of the humanities: they keep us from being trapped by our own desire for certainty.