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My tweets [Nov. 27th, 2015|12:03 pm]
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My tweets [Oct. 21st, 2015|12:03 pm]
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My tweets [Oct. 18th, 2015|12:03 pm]
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  • Sat, 23:23: Is it generally conceded that the term "begs the question" now means "urgently raises the question"?
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My tweets [Jul. 24th, 2015|12:03 pm]
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  • Thu, 12:33: RT @Xiaoyi_Ka: Kafka's Metamorphosis, 1915-2015: "The insect itself is not to be drawn. It is not even to be seen from a distance." http:/…
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My tweets [Jul. 11th, 2015|12:03 pm]
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  • Sat, 09:20: if a man must expose his folly, it is more safe and discreet to do so before few witnesses, & in a scattered neighborhood. - Jonathan Swift
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My tweets [Jun. 15th, 2015|12:03 pm]
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Metaphysics and Mechanics [Jun. 14th, 2015|08:45 pm]
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"I have tried to uncover and unite the truth buried and scattered under the opinions of all the different philosophical sects, and I believe I have added something of my own which takes a few steps forward. The circumstances under which my studies proceeded from my earliest youth have given me some facility in this. I discovered Aristotle as a lad .... But then Plato too, and Plotinus, gave me some satisfaction, not to mention other ancient thinkers whom I consulted later. After finishing the trivial schools, I fell upon the moderns, and I recall walking in a grove on the outskirts of Leipzig called the Rosental, at the age of fifteen, and deliberating whether to preserve substantial forms or not. Mechanism finally prevailed and led me to apply myself to mathematics.... But when I looked for the ultimate reasons for mechanism, and even for the laws of motion, I was greatly surprised to see that they could not be found in mathematics but that I should have to return to metaphysics. This .... at last brought me to understand, after many corrections and forward steps in my thinking .... that material things are only phenomena, though well founded and well connected. Of this, Plato, and even the later Academics and the skeptics too, had caught some glimpses.... I flatter myself to have penetrated into the harmony of these different realms and to have seen that both sides are right provided that they do not clash with each other; that everything in nature happens mechanically and at the same time metaphysically but that the source of mechanics is metaphysics." --- Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, in a letter to Nicolas Remond, 1714.
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Scriptural Reading [Jun. 13th, 2015|05:26 pm]
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Cleaning shelves today, I pulled down a down a book and found a marker in it -- one I placed there, how many years ago? The top part of it that stuck out from between the pages was beaten by time and the crushings of many relocations, but when I opened the pages I found the rest of the marker clean. I knew I must have run my eyes over all that text, those words, at least up to that point at which boredom or exhaustion overtook me, a piece of an old manilla folder came to hand, was ripped in two and inserted between the pages, and that was that. But looking at it now, I realized with shame that I remember none of it: not the slightest word, not a phrase, not even what the book itself was generally supposed to be about, except in the vague summary way that I might have got by scanning the promissory words, and testimonials from unknown people printed on the back cover.

And what good did they do me, all those printed words, and why have I carried them along? What vanity, what bootless stuff. Discourses on the foundations of heaven and earth, and learned analyses of the arguments of others upon those things (i.e. physics and metaphysics). A straightforward person would have suggested that this was an excellent opportunity to unburden: throw the book in the trash and have done with it. But my books are my biography; looking at them tells me something about who I was, and what I have become. I put the marker back, slid the book into its place on the shelf and continued dusting.

It seems to me now that there are only four reasons to read a book -- though like all such precepts they shade into one another and are rarely found pure, and any single person will probably not experience all of them:

The first is nakedly instrumental: one reads in order to fix a car, to pass a test, to interpret candlestick charts of equity prices, and so on. One reads with something else in mind, something in the future, something that will offer a good return on investment. It is a necessary and reasonable thing to do, and the best approach we can adopt is to think out, clearly in advance, exactly what we hope to attain from such reading, because that is all we will attain from it. Sorrow for the person who reads in this way not to obtain the future, but to escape the present.

The second is social: we read because we want to be conversant with the political and philosophical whims of our time, or -- in a better sense -- with the exposition of the governing principles of whatever group of people we are trying to work with. In either case it is to better enable us to participate in dialogue with others, whether for the noble purpose of achieving some difficult collective goal, or for the vain and trivial one of impressing and criticizing those whose opinions differ from our own. A regrettable watershed is passed at the point one discovers, usually well before age thirty, that most of the social value of a such a book can be had by simply owning it and displaying it in a place where guests can see it. I knew a man who kept a whole shelf of the works of Henry Kissenger for just this purpose, praised them with fervor, and never read a line of any one of them. After he died I came into possession of these books and promptly sold them for a very small amount of money. It should go without saying that many unread religious books line such shelves, but this testifies more to the common weakness of humanity, than to the personal sincerity of their owner.

The third reason that we might spend our energy and time -- which are the only real wealth we have, and which both pass away at a measured rate no matter what we do -- to read a piece of writing is to experience the beauty of the written language, for its rhetoric and charm. For the purpose of this essay I use the word 'beauty' in a deliberately vague sense: there are different kinds of it, prompting a range of different emotional experiences, and so the junk-food fiction whose highest praise is "I just can't put it down", and the mean-minded works that only validate the worst of our opinions, also fall into this category, along with those that heal and console. Writing and reading are strange misapplications of powers that developed in the human brain for other purposes, but they allow us to create forms of rhetoric that would be impossible to sustain by memory alone. However, in almost all cases even the most beautiful such rhetoric only touches us, and is soon gone from the mind. The person who reads some great work may, in all likelihood, get no more from it than the one who reads the latest cheap novel purchased to pass the time.

The fourth reason to read is to change oneself, to make oneself a better -- or at least a different -- kind of person. This is work. This is the reading of Holy Scripture, whether the chosen scripture be traditional, or one of the works that are called fiction (as some of the traditional ones were called for many centuries), or the poetry of some bearded renegade from the 1960s. Scriptural reading means re-reading, and repeatedly meditating on the contents of the work, especially on those passages that challenge, frighten or irritate us, because any book that is worth making part of our life -- like any person who is worth making part of our life -- will sometimes do all three of those things. It is not a matter to be entered into lightly, because it implies discarding other works we might have read, for the sake of reading this one again. And if done correctly, it moves us ever more into the company of others who read the same, and whose lives have been tinged by the tincture of the same works. We become one thing and not another -- which is in fact the normal process of life, much though we may dislike it. Scriptural reading, done rightly, allows us some opportunity to shape who we become, who we grow into -- for it is in the nature of humanity that we are, each of us, a creature who might have lived many different kinds of lives, but who must, in this world, live only one.
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My tweets [Jun. 13th, 2015|12:03 pm]
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The Car [Jun. 6th, 2015|01:30 pm]
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[music |Beethoven, Piano Sonata #1 in F Minor]

So, there is a story about a person who receives a new car and has fun driving it in the valley: running fast along the roads, along the potholed streets of the town, over rocks and through water, sometimes carrying other people. Those were good times, exciting times. Then the person realized, with unpleasant suddenness, that the valley was actually a prison: that its pleasures were shallow, trivial and disreputable, and the car had been provided in order help escape from the prison. There is only one way out over the mountains: a steep, narrow, difficult road, but now the car is so broken, worn-out, and in poor condition from hard use that it can't make the journey. It has become a burden, rather than an asset, and the owner must be resigned to staying in the valley. Another person received a small, rather cheaply made car but took excellent care of it, prepared for the journey and managed, with difficulty, to get over the mountains. Another received a broken car but worked hard to repair it. Another realized early on that the valley was a prison but figured he could play around with the car, do some damage to it and still have enough power to get over the mountains: he misjudged the difficulty, night came early and he couldn't make it. Another just decided to stay in the valley and not bother. This is not necessarily a transcendental fable: the world over the mountains could be, simply, the realization of our own capacities and powers in this world. But sorrow for the one who realizes, too late, that there is a place beyond the mountains worth reaching, and he has denied himself the chance to go there.
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