A lively conversation on the titular subject, concerning the availability of theory in the humanities. Five languages have been deployed to date. All comers are welcome.
THE IDEA is all. The proper name is not but the example and the proof of the idea.
—Alfred de Vigny, Réflexions sur la vérité dans l’art1
The Fragestellung of John Robert Ross’ 1986 study of universal grammar,2 recounts a familiar legend as follows:
The following anecdote is told of William James. I have been unable to find any published reference to it, so it may be that I have attributed it to the wrong person, or that it is apocryphal. Be that as it may, because of its bull’s-eye relevance to the study of syntax, I have retold it here.
After a lecture on cosmology and the structure of the solar system, James was accosted by a little old lady.
“Your theory that the sun is the center of the solar system, and that the earth is a ball which rotates around it, has a very convincing ring to it, Mr. James, but it’s wrong. I’ve got a better theory,” said the little old lady.
“And what is that, madam?” inquired James politely.
“That we live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle.”
Not wishing to demolish this absurd little theory by bringing to bear the masses of scientific evidence he had at his command, James decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see some of the inadequacies of
“But what does this second turtle stand on?” persisted James patiently.
To this, the little old lady crowed triumphantly,
“It’s no use, Mr. James—it’s turtles all the way down!”
Les pages qui suivent sont un commentaire pour la conférence sur Baudelaire lue par Paul Valéry à Monaco le 19 février 1924. Une étude d’importance historique considérable, Situation de Baudelaire touche à toutes grandes questions de la poétique de Valéry autant que de celle de Baudelaire. Bien que le poète fût contraint à simplifier sa pensée par le caractère officiel des circonstances de la présentation de ce texte, on peut y trouver des abondants témoignages de l’étendue et de la profondeur de sa philosophie de la théorie littéraire. D’ailleurs, grâce à son importance critique, ce texte peut être regardé comme contenant les prolégomènes à toute étude baudelairienne. Ces pages sont donc destinées à servir d’une préface à ma propre étude sur Baudelaire. Par conséquent, je remarquerai sur quelques similarités et différences entre les deux poètes. Continue reading situation de valéry
| Quand il parlait, il ne levait jamais un bras ni un doigt : il avait tué la marionnette.
— Paul Valéry, Monsieur Teste
| When he spoke, he never raised his arm, nor his finger; he had killed the puppet.
— Paul Valéry, Monsieur Teste
Witness Ross Chambers epitomizing French literary modernism in the two key masterpieces of that movement, Charles Baudelaire’s verse collection Les fleurs du mal and Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary:
Their writing has an elusive quality that resists interpretative closure and makes it difficult, perhaps impossible, to locate a subject in which an “intended meaning” would have originated. As a result, reading modern works becomes a literally interminable procedure, and in both the text and its interpretation the insistence of unconscious forces ― that is, of desire ― becomes impossible to ignore.
Physicists teach that perpetual motion is impossible. Economists agonize over the prospects of full employment. Little do they know that resistance to interpretative closure is all it takes to ensure that the tribe of literary critics becomes fully employed in the manufacture of perpetual motion compelled by the insistence of desire and predicated upon the impossibilities of ignoring. Continue reading 9. the means of language
In their discussions of logic and set theory, Willard Quine and Alonzo Church distinguish between a paradox, an affront against unschooled intuition, and an antinomy, an outright contradiction, an offense against the laws of reason. Both of these predicaments are rooted in classical antiquity. The term aporia (literally, “no way”, or “cul-de-sac”), derived from poros (passage), already occurs in the writings of Democritus. Plato relates it to dialectic. The aporetic situation arises as an intermediate consequence of elenchus, the Socratic method of eliciting truth by means of brief questions and answers. One characteristic instance witnesses Socrates eliciting doubts from his interlocutors by being more in doubt than anyone else. (See Meno 80c.) Continue reading mise en abyme
Descartes’ magical motto, larvatus prodeo, resonates with reason of classical antiquity. Eubulides of Megara, the contemporary opponent of Aristotle, and very likely the most accomplished inventor of puzzles in the history of logic, bequeathed to him the philosophical concept of the larvatus: Though I know my father, though he is the masked man, I still may fail to know the masked man, I still may fail to know my father as the masked man. Their schools disagreed on the way of solving this paradox. Both the peripatetics and the Megarians understood that all knowledge referred to universals. But the former insisted further that such universals were both physically and logically inseparable from the concrete particulars that exemplified them. By contrast, the latter posited an unbridgeable chasm between the real thing and its ideal representation. Eubulides pointed out that the true object of my knowledge is my father’s representation, or his eidos. In so representing, the eidos enjoys no physical link with the material presence of its representandum, the object being represented. Thus it it need not manifest itself coevally and contemporaneously with the representandum. Aristotle maintained that all corporeal presentation necessarily coincides with cognitive representation by every universal exemplified in the representandum so presented. For him, therefore, the failure of my father’s palpable presence to guarantee my recognition of his person, was an acute embarrassment. Continue reading under the mask