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Review of James Seaton’s “Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism”

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Essays, Fiction, Historicism, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Postmodernism, Rhetoric, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on December 31, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This review first appeared here in The University Bookman.

Back when I was a pimple-faced graduate student in English and law, I ordered a book from Amazon titled Cultural Conservatism, Political Liberalism: From Criticism to Cultural Studies. The book had been out awhile, but I had only recently come across an intriguing piece by its author, James Seaton, a professor of English at Michigan State University. I read my purchase in earnest and then dashed off a complimentary email to Seaton days later. He responded, and we struck up a dialogue that continued for several years. I once visited him at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, where he spoke to a small crowd about George Santayana. He had just edited two of Santayana’s seminal essays for Yale University Press and had recruited Wilfred M. McClay, John Lachs, and Roger Kimball to contribute to the edition. We got along swimmingly, and Annette Kirk ensured that he and I had time alone to discuss whether I should apply to a doctoral program in English or continue down the path of the law.

Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism has all the themes and qualities that first drew me to Seaton. It is a collection of Seaton’s latest essays and reviews revised and synthesized into a comprehensive case for humanistic inquiry. Amplifying his arguments from Cultural Conservatism, Political Liberalism and reformulating his principles about the value of literature to society, Seaton continues to undercut the discipline of cultural studies, which he decries for its “obligatory leftism.” His leading contribution—the subject about which he stands to forge new directions in the field of literary criticism—is to revitalize old contributions, namely, the humanistic tradition as defined by Irving Babbitt and as represented by Aristotle, Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, Matthew Arnold, Henry James, Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, and Ralph Ellison. Chapters Two and Four are profitable beginnings of this project because they explain which critics (William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge) and which schools of criticism (Romanticism, Marxism, and the New Criticism) fall outside the humanistic tradition. These chapters, Four especially, are exciting, provocative, and significant. They supply the basis and much of the substance for the rest of the book and suggest that literature is not an agent of ideology, nor literary theory a master key that unlocks the door to grand solutions for political, scientific, and economic problems.

For those who are uninterested or unversed in literary criticism, however, reading Seaton will be like watching strategic athletic maneuvers—swing! parry! dive!—without a sense of what’s at stake in a sporting match whose tactics and rules are unknown. From the start he frames his argument with Plato and Aristotle, but today’s graduate students in English will be unclear what these men mean for the larger project of humanism or why they matter to contemporary audiences. With the exception of the Norton anthologies, most accounts of literary criticism in popular anthologies begin with Nietzsche in the late nineteenth century or with the New Critics in the early twentieth. The pinnacle of influence for these late critics roughly coincides with the development of English departments as institutions. To begin at the beginning—with the Greeks—will disorient those trained to look back at the literary canon through the prism of “contemporary” theories.

This remark is not a reproach of Seaton but of current literary studies; the chief merit of Seaton’s methodology is to demystify literary studies and to affirm there’s nothing new under the sun: the latest theories have definite antecedents (not necessarily good ones) and can be mapped by their continuity with other methodologies. Marxists of the Frankfurt School such as Herbert Marcuse, for example, follow in the wake of Plato: “Just as Plato had insisted on the necessity of censorship in his ideal Republic, Marcuse argued that suppression of free speech was required in the twentieth century for the establishment of what he considered true freedom.”

Seaton’s knack for classification emerges forcefully in the opening chapter. Here he arranges under three heads the whole history of literary criticism: the Platonic, the Neoplatonic, and the Aristotelian. He defines literary criticism as “a continuing conversation” among these three traditions inspired by just two Greek men. Adhering to the third category, the Aristotelian, which he calls humanistic, Seaton rejects the first because it questions the aesthetic value of literature, distrusts the sensory effects of literature, and treats great works as mere symptoms of ideological structures or institutions. “The philosophy of the Republic,” Seaton explains, “leaves no room for judging poetry according to literary excellence; all that counts is its political and social impact.” Seaton rejects the second, the Neoplatonic, for defending literature and poetry on the narrow and quixotic “basis of the moral and spiritual elevation it made possible.”

By contrast, Seaton submits, the “humanistic view of literature” might be “a middle way between the Platonic condemnation of art and literature and the Neoplatonic elevation.” The humanistic view “remains Aristotelian” because it considers “literature as a source of insight about human life” and is willing “to judge grand theory by the norms of common sense.” While Plato would expel poetry and theater from his ideal Republic, segregate poetry from philosophy, and train his Guardians to submit their virtues to the service of the State, Aristotle calls for “individual judgment about the literary merit and relevance to human life of particular works from audiences and certainly from would-be critics.” Neoplatonist overstatement about the manner in which “poetry brings us closer to the divine” also finds no place in Aristotelian humanism, which modestly maintains that literature “can tell us important things about human life but little about the universe.” Humanists write of the person as the person: they turn to literature to learn and to teach how to live well and wisely without fancying transcendental essences or utopian abstraction. The very crux of Aristotelian humanism is that “the importance of literature is linked to the significance of human life itself,” not to the political, ideological, or religious convictions that a work of literature implicates.

The triadic paradigm (Aristotelian, Platonist, Neoplatonist) may seem reductive, and indeed it is, but such reduction establishes recognizable classifications that encompass a diversity of interests and approaches while shaping a vocabulary for arranging distinctive properties into taxonomies to set apart certain authors and texts. Despite his skill for categorizing and simplifying schools of literary criticism, Seaton is steadfast that literary criticism is distinct in function and form from science: the former is as much an art as the art it explicates, whereas the latter is an empirical discipline that ascertains the natural rules of the phenomenal world by gathering and testing concrete data, building consensus among experts, and denominating general propositions to describe observable events. The contrast is not as sharp or essentialist as I have portrayed it—the pragmatic tradition of Peirce, James, and Santayana falls somewhere between art and science—but the fact that literary criticism has splintered into innumerable, contradictory schools suggests that the disparate methods and judgments of literary critics are not derived from shared conditions or by recourse to the same techniques.

Criticism of the humanistic variety championed by Seaton is found today not in academic journals but in popular literary reviews and journals such as this one. It has the important civic function of educating and inspiring mass audiences. Humanism rejects the “implicit promise” of cultural studies “that adepts gain the ability to make authoritative pronouncements about all aspects of human life without going to the trouble of learning the rudiments of any particular discipline.” Humanism, instead, engages in public debate without resorting to naked polemics; its practitioners understand or at least appreciate the complexity of the cultural norms and standards of readers outside the ivory tower. Professors in the academy, on the other hand, disconnected from the lifestyles and manners and conventions of the general public, tend to write themselves into little corners, retreating from the potential scrutiny of educated laypeople and insisting that true scholarship “requires specialization on topics specific enough to allow for the production of new knowledge, not open-ended conversation about questions to which no definitive answer is possible.” Seaton’s model of humanism advocates a different errand: “to make available to the larger culture the testimony of literature on human life … by accurately assessing the literary merit of the witness.”

They waste it that do state it with no style. Seaton, accordingly, makes short work of the “dominant theorizing” that lacks “literary distinction,” and he does so with his own unique style that remains as accessible to the educated layperson as it is to professional scholars of literature. His is not the delightfully repetitious, grandstanding prose of a Harold Bloom or Richard Poirier—the type of prose that, in its very makeup, shouts down the technical writing of hyper-professionalized humanities scholarship. Yet Seaton can turn a phrase with the best of them. Although it is a subsidiary point, the notion that a critic should write in a mode many people will enjoy is the literary equivalent to popular sovereignty: the common reader, not the expert, ought to determine which works continue to be read and therefore which become canonized. Like his guides Ralph Ellison and Dwight Macdonald, Seaton, mindful of his audience, takes pains to avoid jargon even as he discusses such theorists as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno whose writing is riddled with esoterica.

Seaton ends with a hopeful note: “Although the task of addressing the arguments of the dominant contemporary theories is important, the decisive answer [to the question what to do now that the dominant theories dismiss the importance of literature to life and thought] will come from the literary criticism of the twenty-first century that conveys to the general public the pleasures and insights that poems, plays, and fiction continue to make available to all those willing to attend.” Let’s hope the coming decades yield critics like Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling, who were “members of a humanistic tradition capacious enough to study the connections between literature and society while also insisting that poems, plays, and novels should be judged on their own merits as works of art.”

It isn’t that the political and social sphere should be off-limits to critics, only that critics should, as Seaton does, subordinate their political and social presuppositions to aesthetic judgments, the most discerning of which account for the value of imaginative literature to plain living and high thinking. The best criticism helps us to understand how literature makes life better, more meaningful, and more fulfilling. Simple as it sounds, this proposition is tremendously complex because of the tremendous complexity of life itself. Held to his own high standards, Seaton succeeds: his chapters force you to consider what role literature has played in your own development, and how that role might play out in the lives of others. Good literature is more than a material object; it’s a way of living, a crucial check on those who purport to know it all with utter certainty.

What Crisis? Law as the Marriage of Science and the Humanities

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Legal Education & Pedagogy, News and Current Events, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Scholarship, The Academy on March 12, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This week the Association for the Study of Law, Culture & the Humanities convened to consider this question: “How will law and humanities scholarship fare against the pressure of the science and technology paradigm that has now permeated the institutional frameworks of academia?”  The question implies an adversarial relationship between science and the humanities, or law-and-humanities.  The division between science and the humanities as academic disciplines, however, is not yet 150 years old; it is misguided to pit “law-and-humanities” (a signifier that did not exist a few decades ago) against the “science and technology paradigm that has now permeated the institutional frameworks of academia” (another quotation from the conference program).  We do not have to go back to Plato or Aristotle or Galileo or Descartes or Spinoza or Da Vinci or Locke or Hume or Rousseau or Kant or Newton or Adam Smith or Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson or Thoreau to see that what we call the humanities has not, traditionally, been divorced from the sciences—that, in fact, the humanities and the sciences are mutually illuminating, not mutually exclusive.

In America, more recently, the classical pragmatists—in particular C.S. Peirce and William James—sought to make philosophy more scientific, and in this endeavor they were mimicking the logical positivists in Britain.  Some of the most famous minds of the 20th century worked at the intersection of the humanities and science: Freud, Einstein, Michael Polanyi, Karl Popper, Jacques Lacan, F. A. Hayek, and Noam Chomsky, to name a few.  Lately we have seen scientific thinkers as wide-ranging as Steven Pinker, E. O. Wilson, Jared Diamond, and Leon Kass celebrate or draw from the humanities.

A review of the conference abstracts suggests that most presenters will be considering this question from the political left, but their concerns are shared by many on the right, such as Roger Scruton, who recently took to the pages of The New Atlantis to address this topic in his article “Scientism in the Arts and Humanities.”  Nevertheless, forcing the separation of science and the humanities does not strike me as prudent.

By encouraging the humanities to recognize its scientific heritage and to recover its scientific methodologies, the academy would be correcting decades of wandering.  Science is indispensable to the humanities, and vice versa; the two work in concert.  The findings in one influence the findings in the other.  Evidence of this reciprocity in the context of legal studies is especially striking in America during the late 19th and early 20th century, when the law often was associated with scientific disciplines rather than with the humanities.  At this time, the theories of Charles Darwin and his progeny helped to explain the common law tradition while influencing the way that law was taught in law schools and examined by judges and most notably by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

The scientific paradigms in vogue among legal thinkers at the turn of that century were neither uniform nor monolithic.  For instance, Christopher Columbus Langdell’s push to make legal education more scientific was different from Holmes’s use of Darwinism to describe the common law.  Rather than teasing out the distinctions between various scientific approaches to the law during the late 19th and early 20th century America, however, I would look at these scientific approaches as part of the same general project and as a reminder of how the humanities and the sciences can participate to bring about theoretical and practical insights.  It might be that, of all disciplines, law is the most revealing of the participatory nature of science and the humanities and, therefore, provides the best justification for instrumental and scientific approaches to humane studies.

There are groups within the humanities that resent the scientific disciplines for the funding and privilege those disciplines enjoy in the academic marketplace, but at least part of this resentment is misplaced.  The fault lies partially with the scientists who mistake merit for value: it is not that the sciences enjoy more funding and privilege because they have more merit—the academy is not a meritocracy—but it is that they have more value to consumers and the public writ large.  It may well be that the humanities have more merit, but unless consumers begin to value merit, the meritorious will not necessarily prevail in the market.  

Plato and Natural Law Theory

In Arts & Letters, Communism, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Western Philosophy on March 27, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

Natural law theory, at its essence, is not far removed, conceptually at least, from Plato’s theory of forms.  According to Plato, only the philosopher kings are equipped and trained intellectually to comprehend the true forms as opposed to the sensible forms that are readily understandable in the phenomenal world.  These philosopher kings can grasp the Form of the Good, for instance, which is the fountainhead from which flow all true forms, including knowledge, truth, and beauty.  But how are we to know who these philosopher kings are?  How are we to distinguish them from charlatans?  And why should the polis uncritically accept the supposedly sound judgments and determinations of those who cannot prove to us their purportedly superior faculties?

There is no ideal city, no Platonic Utopia, nor even a realm approaching the character of Magnesia.  Plato’s communistic fantasies have never been achieved,[1] and the disenchantment one senses in The Laws differs markedly from the tone and confidence exuded in The Republic. It is as if Plato, having aged, realized the dreaminess of his younger vision in The Republic and wished to correct the record, even though he did not go far enough.  At least in The Laws he acknowledged that the first principle of politics is to attain peace; the absence of military conflict ought to be the chief aim of the legislator; judges are another matter.

Plato seems to have continued to admire tyranny, despite his criticism of tyrants in The Laws, for elsewhere in that work he discusses how leaders ought to create an obedient disposition among the citizens.  Commonplace though that proposition may sound, it suggests that the State and its politicians should condition citizens to act for the good of the State.  The problem is that the State is made up of those who live off the citizens, so unchecked obedience to the State means that the citizens ensure their perpetual subordination to those who exploit citizen labor.  It is little wonder that the Platonic State devotes itself to educating the young, for the State must guarantee that there are future generations of uncritical followers to take advantage of.

This is not to suggest that Plato’s works are without truth, only that they are underdeveloped and often misguided.  Aristotle seems to have thought so, too.  The free polis is a multifaceted collection of networks bound together by the voluntary acts of free agents whose rules of habit and exchange exist separately from legislative fiat.


[1] Aristotle himself recognizes that Plato lacks a proper understanding of unity because Plato treats it in terms of property ownership because it is contracted by experience.  “[A]though there is a sense in which property ought to be common,” says Aristotle, “it should in general be private.  When everyone has his own separate sphere of interest, there will not be the same ground for quarrels; and they will make more effort, because each man will feel that he is applying himself to what is his own.” Aristotle, The Politics (Translated by Ernest Barker; Revised with an Introduction by R. F. Stanley). Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. P. 47.

To Educate in the Permanent Things

In Arts & Letters, Books, Essays, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Politics, Walt Whitman, Western Philosophy, Writing on March 20, 2013 at 8:18 am

Allen Mendenhall

This article originally appeared here in The American Spectator.

In his State of the Union address last month, President Obama proposed changes to preschool, high school, and college education, respectively. His proposals generated praise and condemnation from the predictable cheerleaders and naysayers. Some celebrated his efforts to expand early childhood education; others suggested that he should have focused more on the student loan crisis; still others, not to be outdone, pointed to school funding, teacher salaries, grading, standardized testing, technology, and foreign study as the pressing issues that he neglected to address with sufficient detail.

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about how to improve American education from the top down. But positive change rarely happens through centralized design; it arises spontaneously through the interaction of human agents operating within and among social groups. The State cannot plan and then promulgate a proper education, and legislative enactments cannot reflect the mores and traditions of local groups with differing standards and expectations. The most prudent and humble proposals for improving education are not couched in statist, Platonic terms about civic education and human perfection; instead, they approach learning modestly, on the individual level. They entail the everyday interactions between teachers and students. They are not stamped with the approval of politicians, unions, think tanks, or interest groups.  They take place in the classroom, not the public square. A teacher anywhere, whatever his station, school, or background, can implement them in his course without disrupting the pace or provoking the ire of the educational establishment. The best of these, because it is so easily executed, is simply to teach what T.S. Eliot, and Russell Kirk after him, called “permanent things.”

The permanent things are the inherited principles, mores, customs, and traditions that sustain humane thinking and preserve civilized existence for future generations; their canonization in literary, philosophical, religious, and historical texts happened and is happening in slow degrees. We can trace the permanent things through curricula that emphasize the ultimate values of prosperous societies. An informed, laborious study of the perennial themes and archetypal patterns in what are variously denominated as the Great Works, the Western Canon, or the Classics can help us to organize and make sense of the permanent things. There are those who would object that this approach seems too hopeful and ideal. But no one has suggested it as a panacea, of which there are none, and anyway, is there a proposal that could be simpler, more straightforward, and more workable than assigning and discussing the Great Works?

As early as 1948, Eliot remarked that “there is no doubt that in our headlong rush to educate everybody, we are lowering our standards, and more and more abandoning the study of those subjects by which the essentials of our culture—of that part of it which is transmittable by education—are transmitted; destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanized caravans.” It might be asked just who these barbarian nomads are and why we ought not to welcome their cultural practices and assumptions. The barbarian nomads could be, I think, any group lacking in historical perspective and mostly ignorant of the illuminating continuities that have guided our weightiest and most imaginative thinkers. The practices and assumptions of these nomads are not grounded in lived experience but aimed at utopian projects such as ensuring equality, creating fundamental rights, or eliminating poverty, and, to the extent that these practices and assumptions deviate from enduring norms, they cannot be said to have flourished ever.

To study the permanent things, on the other hand, is to consider the prevailing and profound ideas from certain times and schools in relation to other such ideas from various times and schools throughout successive eras. It is to map the course of perennial ideas to examine how they apply to different settings and generations. It is both sequential and diachronic in its approach. Its chief benefit is to put ideas into context, which is to say that it is to make us aware of our own presuppositions and perspectives that necessarily arise from our social, cultural, and historical situation.  Each thinker lives in his own specific era and place and cannot gain knowledge in a vacuum outside of time; our era and place shape the manner in which we think and restrict our ability to imagine conditions beyond our immediate and tangible experience.

This is not to submit that our ideas are determined for us, only that we enter into experience with certain perceptions that we have no control over. They are there because of the conditions present at the time and space in which we exist.  A sustained study of the permanent things will show us that our perceptions are not totally alien from those of our predecessors, although the respective perceptions are different. It also teaches us to compensate for our prejudices and to avoid thinking that our necessarily limited perspectives are unconditionally true and universally acceptable, even if they have verifiable antecedents. It reveals, as well, that schools of thought cannot simply be deemed later versions of earlier schools just because the two are in agreement about certain points. Finally, although we cannot escape those presuppositions that are embedded in our thought and culture, being alert to their probable existence can counteract their possible effect.

A rigorous study of the permanent things provides a lodestar for evaluating particular ideas against that which has been tested and tried before. Ideas that seem new always have traceable antecedents, and individuals equipped with a fundamental knowledge of the permanent things are able to situate purportedly novel ideas alongside their forerunners. These individuals recognize that change is not always progress; sometimes it is decline, deterioration, or decay. Only a sense of the continuities of history and thought can demonstrate the difference. Our political pedants in general and President Obama in particular insist on recognizing and implementing new institutions as if a radical departure from historic standards and established customs is itself the mark of good and lasting policy. Yet the permanent things show that even the most exceptional thinkers, those who represent the spirit of their age, whatever that might have been or might be, are part of a greater tradition.

It may be true that to study a particular thinker’s cultural milieu and biography is requisite to placing his ideas into their proper context and to highlighting the unacceptable premises of his philosophy; nevertheless, cautious interpreters ought to consider whether his thoughts necessarily lead to certain consequences, or whether the events that seem related to his thoughts arose accidentally, apart from his philosophy. Put another way, the cautious interpreter must carefully consider causation: whether theories actually generate particular circumstances, or whether those circumstances would have come to pass regardless of what the thinker spoke or wrote. Mussolini, for instance, praised William James, but it does not follow that anything James said or wrote endorses or enables fascism. He who would suggest otherwise betrays an ignorance of James’s work. The permanent things can help us to distinguish the true forms and implications of an individual’s thought from their appropriations by hostile forces.

By studying the permanent things, moreover, we learn that we cannot achieve the proper education through mere funding; nor does the solution to schooling gridlock and setbacks come from student aid, dress codes, student evaluations, tuition, or whatever. These issues begin to seem fleeting and trivial to one with an historical sense. They are at most temporary struggles, and although they are important, as all struggles are important, we are not to subordinate liberal learning to them. The best way to achieve the liberal learning necessary to make important and meaningful distinctions about our complex world is, as I have suggested and as it bears repeating, through a holistic, painstaking exploration of the permanent things. This means not only reading the Great Works for their content, but analyzing them in light of their place in history.

The beauty of this approach is that anyone can carry it out; the wisdom of it lies in its civilizing effects. Whether one is a homeschooling parent, a public school teacher, the leader of a local book club, or simply a curious-minded autodidact, the permanent things are available to him in texts, waiting to be sifted through and analyzed. It is true that there is disagreement as to what constitutes a Great Work and by what criteria, but it does not take more than research and commonsense empiricism to discern which pre-twentieth century texts have withstood the test of time. Teaching the permanent things does not require a large-scale, bureaucratic, administrative overhaul. It does not demand central planning or the implementation of mass, curricular programs; it can be accomplished through decentralized networks of concerned individuals. If parents would teach their children, friends their friends, colleagues their colleagues, and so on, we would in the aggregate become a more literate, astute, and informed society. And as our politicians lecture us about our duties even as they demand our money, we can take comfort in the proverb that these things too shall pass.

The Major Move of Deconstruction

In Arts & Letters, Epistemology, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Postmodernism, Western Philosophy on January 30, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

“Every concept is necessarily and essentially inscribed in a chain or a system, within which it refers to another and to other concepts, by the systematic play of differences.  Such a play, then—difference—is no longer simply a concept, but the possibility of conceptuality, of the conceptual system and process in general.  […] Within a language, within the system of language, there are only differences.  A taxonomic operation can accordingly undertake its systematic, statistical, and classificatory inventory.”

—Jacques Derrida, “Differance”

The major move of deconstruction is to interrogate binary oppositions in Western thought (good/evil, man/woman, black/white, right/wrong, and so on) to determine how certain ideas have gained credence over others (by social construction).  Derrida deals with signification and the inability of the sign to signify the referent because of the constant chain of deferred meaning—that is to say, the constant slippage between articulations or representations of the thing and the thing as it exists in the phenomenal world.  Put another way, the slippage is between the production of difference without origin and the actual quality of the referent that precedes thought and articulation.  Derrida gives this slippage the name “differance,” a hybrid and invented term that implicates what he elsewhere calls “metaphysics of presence.”

Derrida draws on the dualisms of Western and Platonic philosophy to suggest that all concepts are understood by their inverse.  If all concepts are understood by their inverse, then any understanding of an inverse concept necessarily depends upon another inverse concept.  Every opposing concept is itself intelligible because of additional opposing concepts, and no concept is absolute or transcendental such that it has no inverse; therefore, the search for an origin of meaning reveals that there are only networks of differences, each of which has been produced by humans.  There is no starting or stopping point to this constant deferral of meaning, or what Derrida calls “a chain or system.”  There is, in other words, no pure present.

Meaning, although never present in the sense of being fixed in time and space, resides in whatever taxonomic operation has created and arranged signifiers that humans use to communicate and mobilize.  Language and codes constitute and utilize systems of difference, even if language and codes cannot realize some transcendental signifier.  The most that language and codes can realize is the trace of a presence.  Derrida refers to this strategic realization as, among other things, “protowriting,” an economical exercise that enables humans to convey messages, but that does not bring about an organic unity of meaning.

All positive understanding of words or things comes through negation: the devaluing of one inverse and the privileging of another.  When Derrida says (above) that the play of difference is “no longer a concept,” but the “possibility of conceptuality, of the conceptual system and process in general,” he is hinting at this social constitution of words and their value of exchange.  Even if “there are only differences” in a system of language or meaning, humans still harness certain concepts in the service of certain ends.  Humans are not paralyzed by difference; indeed, difference might even enable human action.  It is the aim of deconstruction—which is in principle a value neutral methodology and not a crusading ideology—to show how humans have dealt with difference and organized around (and because of) certain significations that privilege some concepts (or sets of concepts) over other concepts (or sets of concepts).

 

Law and the Sum of Particulars

In Arts & Letters, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law on January 17, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

It is the lawyer’s errand to analyze complicated texts, ferret out details, argue fine points, and consider the facts of experience in light of their implications for and because of rules and regulations.  The task of the lawyer is to scrutinize and produce particulars.  Rarely is the lawyer afforded the time and privilege to contemplate the sum of the particulars.  That is unfortunate because tasks and particulars necessarily interact to produce the law, and the lawyer ought to know something of the fundamental bases of his profession.

If the lawyer were to add up all of his activities in a single workday—reading his email, drafting his motions, calling his clients, billing his time—the result would not be “the law” as such, but at most a police description of the constituent elements of legal practice.  From these elements he can infer some generalizations about the law as an ontological and epistemological category, but he cannot name or describe the law as a clear concept that will make sense to future lawyers or that would have made sense to lawyers long ago.

Most lawyers are like the prisoners in Plato’s allegory of the cave: bound by their daily routines and habits of mind and looking forward at the shadows, those sensible particulars that are merely images of copies of the true forms.  There are a few philosopher lawyers—very few, I might add, for the lawyer is, as Plato indicates, part of the auxiliary class, beneath the philosopher kings—who look beyond the quotidian operations of the workaday world, or the fashionable legislation that temporarily passes for authoritative rules and regulations, or the administrative systems that seek short term solutions to minor and momentary problems, or the endless monotony of calendars and deadlines to see the real objects of sensation and to achieve a higher, more holistic stage of cognition.  These few philosopher lawyers know what the law is despite what the statutes or the judges proclaim it to be.

My Reading List for 2013

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creativity, Fiction, History, Humanities, Law, Literature, Novels, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on December 12, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

Editorial Note (April 15, 2013):  At this point in the year, I have already discovered flaws in this list. For instance, I gave myself two weeks to read Augustine’s Confessions and one week to read Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.  I should have done the reverse.  Summa Theologica may have required more than two weeks to read, since I found myself rushing through it, and it is not a book through which one should rush.  My schedule has forced me to speed read some texts in order to avoid taking shortcuts.  Some of the texts on this list will therefore appear on my list for next year, so that they get the treatment and consideration they deserve.

2013 will be a good year for reading.  I’ve made a list of the books I’m going to undertake, and I hope you’ll consider reading along with me.  As you can see, I’ll be enjoying many canonical works of Western Civilization.  Some I’ve read before; some I haven’t.  My goal is to reacquaint myself with the great works I fell in love with years ago and to read some of the great works that I’ve always wanted to read but haven’t.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that everybody ought to read these works, but I do think that by reading them, a person will gain a fundamental understanding of the essential questions and problems that have faced humans for generations.

Some works are conspicuous in their absence; the list betrays my preferences.  Notably missing are the works of Shakespeare and the canonical texts that make up the Old and New Testament.  There’s a reason for that.  I’ve developed a morning habit of reading the scriptures as well as Shakespeare before I go to work.  If I’m reading these already, there’s no need to add them to the list, which is designed to establish a healthy routine.  What’s more, the list comes with tight deadlines, and I’m inclined to relish rather than rush through the Bible or Shakespeare.

Lists provide order and clarity; we make them to reduce options or enumerate measurable, targeted goals.  Lists rescue us from what has been called the “tyranny of choice.”  Benjamin Franklin made a list of the 13 virtues he wished to live by.  What motivated him is perhaps what’s motivating me: a sense of purpose and direction and edification.

At first I wanted to assign myself a book a week, but realizing that some works are longer or more challenging than others, that as a matter of obligation I will have other books to read and review, that I have a doctoral dissertation to write, that the legal profession is time consuming, and that unforeseen circumstances could arise, I decided that I might need more time than a week per book depending on the complexity of the particular selection or the busyness of the season.  Although I hope to stick to schedule, I own that I might have to permit myself flexibility.  We’ll see.

For variety—and respite—I have chosen to alternate between a pre-20th century text and a 20th century text.  In other words, one week I might read Milton, the next Heidegger.  For the pre-20th century texts, I will advance more or less chronologically; there is no method or sequence for the 20th century texts, which I listed as they came to mind (“oh, I’ve always wanted to read more Oakeshott—I should add him.  And isn’t my knowledge of Proust severely limited?—I’ll add him as well.”).  It’s too early to say what lasting and significant effects these latter texts will have, so I hesitate to number them among the demonstrably great pre-20th century texts, but a general consensus has, I think, established these 20th century texts as at least among the candidates for canonicity.

I have dated some of the texts in the list below.  Not all dates are known with certainty, by me or anyone else.  Some texts were revised multiple times after their initial publication; others were written in installments.  Therefore, I have noted the time span for those works produced over the course of many years.

One would be justified in wondering why I’ve selected these texts over others.  The answer, I suppose, pertains to something Harold Bloom once said: that there are many books but only one lifetime, so why not read the best and most enduring?  I paraphrase because I can’t remember precisely what he said or where he said it, but the point is clear enough: read the most important books before you run out of time.

Making this list, I learned that one can read only so many great works by picking them off one week at a time.  The initial disheartenment I felt at this realization quickly gave way to motivation: if I want to understand the human condition as the most talented and creative of our predecessors understood it, I will have to make a new list every year, and I will have to squeeze in time for additional texts whenever possible.  I am shocked at the number of books that I wanted to include in this list, but that didn’t make it in.  I ran out of weeks.  What a shame.

Here is my list.  I hope you enjoy. Read the rest of this entry »

Henry Hazlitt, Literary Critic

In American History, Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Creative Writing, Creativity, Economics, Essays, Ethics, Fiction, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on March 20, 2012 at 9:05 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following appeared here at Prometheus Unbound and here at Mises.org.

Remembered mostly for his contributions to economics, including his pithy and still-timely classic Economics in One Lesson (1946), Henry Hazlitt was a man who wore many hats. He was a public intellectual and the author or editor of some 28 books, one of which was a novel, The Great Idea (1961) — published in Britain and later republished in the United States as Time Will Run Back (1966) — and another of which, The Anatomy of Criticism (1933), was a trialogue on literary criticism. (Hazlitt’s book came out 24 years before Northrop Frye published a book of criticism under the same title.) Great-great-grandnephew to British essayist William Hazlitt, the boy Henry wanted to become like the eminent pragmatist and philosopher-psychologist William James, who was known for his charming turns of phrase and literary sparkle. Relative poverty would prevent Hazlitt’s becoming the next James. But the man Hazlitt forged his own path, one that established his reputation as an influential man of letters.

In part because of his longstanding support for free-market economics, scholars of literature have overlooked Hazlitt’s literary criticism; and Austrian economists — perhaps for lack of interest, perhaps for other reasons — have done little to restore Hazlitt’s place among the pantheon of 20th century literary critics. Yet Hazlitt deserves that honor.

He may not have been a Viktor Shklovsky, Roman Jakobson, Cleanth Brooks, William K. Wimsatt, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Lionel Trilling, Dwight Macdonald, or Kenneth Burke, but Hazlitt’s criticism is valuable in negative terms: he offers a corrective to much that is wrong with literary criticism, both then and now. His positive contributions to literary criticism seem slight when compared to those of the figures named in the previous sentence. But Hazlitt is striking in his ability to anticipate problems with contemporary criticism, especially the tendency to judge authors by their identity. Hazlitt’s contributions to literary criticism were not many, but they were entertaining and erudite, rivaling as they did the literary fashions of the day and packing as much material into a few works as other critics packed into their entire oeuvres. Read the rest of this entry »

The Emersonian Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

In American History, Art, Arts & Letters, Emerson, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Poetry, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, The Supreme Court, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on October 26, 2011 at 9:16 am

Allen Mendenhall

Writers on Holmes have forgotten just how influential poetry and literature were to him, and how powerfully literary his Supreme Court dissents really are.  The son of the illustrious poet by the same name, young Holmes, or Wendell, fell in love with the heroic tales of Sir Walter Scott, and the “enthusiasm with which Holmes in boyhood lost himself in the world of Walter Scott did not diminish in maturity.”[1]  Wendell was able to marry his skepticism with his romanticism, and this marriage, however improbable, illuminated his appreciation for ideas past and present, old and new.  “His aesthetic judgment,” says Mark DeWolfe Howe, author of the most definitive biography of Holmes and one of Holmes’s former law clerks, “was responsive to older modes of expression and earlier moods of feeling than those which were dominant at the fin de siècle and later, yet his mind found its principle nourishment in the thought of his own times, and was generally impatient of those who believe that yesterday’s insight is adequate for the needs of today.”[2]  Holmes transformed and adapted the ideas of his predecessors while transforming and adapting—one might say troping—milestone antecedents of aestheticism, most notably the works of Emerson.  “[I]t is clear,” says Louis Menand, “that Holmes had adopted Emerson as his special inspiration.”[3]      

Classically educated at the best schools, Wendell was subject to his father’s elaborate discussions of aesthetics, which reinforced the “canons of taste with the heavier artillery of morals.”[4]  In addition to Scott, Wendell enjoyed reading Sylvanus Cobb, Charles Lamb’s Dramatic Poets, The Prometheus of Aeschylus,[5] and Plato’s Dialogues.[6]  Wendell expressed a lifelong interest in art, and his drawings as a young man exhibit a “considerable talent.”[7]  He declared in his Address to the Harvard Alumni Association Class of 1861 that life “is painting a picture, not doing a sum.”[8]  He would later use art to clarify his philosophy to a friend: “But all the use of life is in specific solutions—which cannot be reached through generalities any more than a picture can be painted by knowing some rules of method.  They are reached by insight, tact and specific knowledge.”[9]     

At Harvard College, Wendell began to apply his facility with language to oft-discussed publications in and around Cambridge.  In 1858, the same year that Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. gifted five volumes of Emerson to Wendell,[10] Wendell published an essay called “Books” in the Harvard undergraduate literary journal.[11]  Wendell celebrated Emerson in the piece, saying that Emerson had “set him on fire.”  Menand calls this essay “an Emersonian tribute to Emerson.”[12] 

Holmes had always admired Emerson.  Legend has it that, when still a boy, Holmes ran into Emerson on the street and said, in no uncertain terms, “If I do anything, I shall owe a great deal to you.”  Holmes was more right than he probably knew. 

Holmes, who never gave himself over to ontological (or deontological) ideas about law as an existent, material, absolute, or discoverable phenomenon, bloomed and blossomed out of Emersonian thought, which sought to “unsettle all things”[13] and which offered a poetics of transition that was “not a set of ideas or concepts but rather a general attitude toward ideas and concepts.”[14]  Transition is not the same thing as transformation.  Transition signifies a move between two clear states whereas transformation covers a broader and more fluent way of thinking about change.  Holmes, although transitional, was also transformational.  He revised American jurisprudence until it became something it previously was not.  Feeding Holmes’s appetite for change was “dissatisfaction with all definite, definitive formulations, be they concepts, metaphors, or larger formal structures.”[15]  This dissatisfaction would seem to entail a rejection of truth, but Emerson and Holmes, unlike Rorty and the neopragmatists much later, did not explode “truth” as a meaningful category of discourse.  Read the rest of this entry »

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