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On subaltern horrors, Borges, and the Natural History of an Idea

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 08/10/2020 - 3:22am in


art, death

One of the habits of the mind is the invention of horrible imaginings. The mind has invented Hell, it has invented predestination to Hell, it has imagined the Platonic ideas, the chimera, the sphinx, abnormal transfinite numbers (whose parts are no smaller than the whole), masks, mirrors, operas, the teratological Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the unresolvable Ghost, articulated into a single organism .... I have tried to rescue from oblivion a subaltern horror: the vast, contradictory Library, whose vertical wildernesses of books run the incessant risk of changing into others that affirm, deny, and confuse everything like a delirious god.--Borges (1939) The Total Library.

I have quoted the concluding paragraph of "The Total Library," which is the forgotten sibling of Borges' more celebrated (and slightly younger) "The Library of Babel" although it shares some underlying insights. The Total Library is an articulating of the thesis that "the fancy or the imagination or the utopia of the Total Library has certain characteristics that are easily confused with virtues." That we recognize the name of the story in the sentence describing the utopia of the total library alerts us that use and mention, and even baptistic designation intermingle on macro and micro level, which is a feature of the story, not a bug. 

The main narrative, such as it is, of The Total Library, is a history of ideas in Lovejoy's specific sense: an idea is treated as an isolated cultural unit with a clear natural history ("Between Democritus of Abdera and Fechner of Leipzig flow-heavily laden-almost twenty-four centuries of European history"). The most familiar token, Dennett calls it proverbial, of the "typographical image" whose natural history is recounted is Huxley's claim that "half dozen monkeys provided with typewriters would, in a few eternities, produce all the books in the British Museum."

Inscribed in this narrative in the history of ideas, is a report on the "polemic" between the system of chance or necessity and the system of divinely organized order. This polemic is decided in favor of Democritus (the proponent of the system of chance). 

As an aside, Borges treats Cicero (not his character) as refuted. But Cicero had been introduced not as a proponent of the system of divine order, but as an ironic skeptic. In other words, Borges treats the rise of Darwinism (who is represented by Huxley) and Logic (Carroll) not, altogether without wisdom, as a refutation of the system of divine order, but rather as a defeat of ironic skepticism. This is, of course, not just an aside because one can understand Borges' story as the revenge, or eternal return, of ironic skepticism (which competes with a more successful skepticism familiar from the extension of the holographic principle to a holographic universe.)

The version told by one of Cicero's characters, and now I quote Borges, goes like this:

 I do not marvel that there should be anyone who can persuade him-self that certain solid and individual bodies are pulled along by the force of gravity, and that the fortuitous collision of those particles produces this beautiful world that we see. He who considers this possible will also be able to believe that if innumerable characters of gold, each representing one of the twenty-one letters of the alphabet, were thrown together onto the ground, they might produce the Annals of Ennius. I doubt whether chance could possibly create even a single verse to read.

Because of the familiarity of Huxley's token of this image in recurring debates over Darwinism, we might overlook that in Cicero the image is used to undermine an epicurean cosmogony (recall yesterday's post on Newton)--the existence of species is a mere subset of this. This cosmogony held that the structure we encounter is the product of the collision of atoms, which have an innate gravity, subject, as we learn from Lucretius and Cicero, to random swerves.

I don't mean to suggest that Cicero or Huxley are idiosyncratic to connect cosmogony to the origin of species. As I noted a few weeks ago, in the revised preface to his Bridgewater Treatise, Whewell trots out Cicero's sibling argument -- which I have dubbed 'Posidonian,' which is just before the passage recounted by Borges' narration  -- in response to Darwin's Origin (as I learned from David Haig). And while Whewell treats the nebular hypothesis as plausible, he does not think it is sufficiently explanatory about the origin of the order it exhibits.

But rather than returning to that material, my eye stops at Borges' two-fold claim that Swift's "Trivial Essay on the Faculties of the Soul," (i) is a "museum of commonplaces," and (ii) itself a token of this idea. Part of the joke here is that the correct title of Swift's essay is "A Tritical Essay upon the Faculties of the Mind."  "Tritical" being (now archaic) "trite" or "hackneyed." And in the joke Borges' discerns that a single typographic mistake can be memetically or fitness enhancing.

And when we turn to Swift we find indeed a museum of commonplaces, which presents us not so much with a natural history of the typographic idea, but with a philosophical history, which as the title already suggests, itself a polemic against (ahh) then recent philosophy (and the commitments of an Enlightenment age: democracy, science, etc.).

And lurking in the essay is not so much the observation that democracy is vulnerable to demagoguery, which is indeed trite, but rather the more philanthropic point that would have been evident to Borges' initial readers -- that democratic theorists fail to grasp the true nature of the best kind of democratic public speech. This nature is not truth-telling (as democrats deceives themselves) nor flattery (as the the critics of democracy claim), but rather the art of hiding its artfulness ("in oratory the greatest Art is to hide Art.")

There is no better way to hide artfulness if the surface is random characters which "chance would organize and which would eliminate intelligence." And this would be the case "for every sensible line or accurate fact there would be millions of meaningless cacophonies, verbal farragoes, and babblings."

It is tempting to domesticate the thought by saying 'it's fiction' or 'science fiction'. But in the refutation of Cicero  the ground from which to deny we inhabit the subaltern horror became unstable, even a trapdoor.



Sitting Between Life and Death

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 07/10/2020 - 1:39am in

The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say when one ends, and where the other begins?

Edgar Allan Poe

As our world become increasingly digitized, and social networks link friends across the spaces and lines of our lives, an interesting phenomenon occurs as people die.

My Mother passed way too early at the age of 30. This event set forth a chain of events in my own life in which I’m cognizant of my own mortality, and to some extent (try to) live for the day. Most times this is a struggle and I don’t actually live each day to the fullest because there is also a fear that at any point life will/could fall apart. These two elements keep me in a constant state of neurosis…but I digress.

This has also brought about this need that I have to be remembered. As an angry adolescent, I wanted to be remembered after I die. Not just by friends and family, but I also wanted others to know me, or my work, or my name. Because my Mother may have been a blip on the radar, I wanted to be remembered.

I don’t think it’s a case of vanity, although I’m sure there is a subtle dose of that. I think there is also some desire to write myself into being, but also make up for time lost by my Mother.

I think you can learn a lot about life by knowing that you will die.

Because of the time period in which she died, there is relatively little documenting her life. A handful of scattered, yellowed photos. A half dozen lost home videos that can only be viewed on machines that don’t exist.

Looking and listening for a story unremembered is like the daily ritual of an archeologist.

What do you live for? How do you want to be remembered after you have passed?

What…if anything will your digital breadcrumbs say about you when you’ve stopped logging in?

Photo by Luke Southern on Unsplash

This post is Day 21 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at

The post Sitting Between Life and Death first appeared on W. Ian O'Byrne.

Dan W. Brock (1937-2020)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 29/09/2020 - 5:00pm in



Dan W. Brock, professor emeritus of medical ethics in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard University, has died.

Professor Brock was well known for his work in biomedical ethics, authoring over 150 articles concerning health policy, medical technology, the moral responsibilities of doctors and other healthcare professionals, the ethics of procreation, moral issues concerning genetics, justice in health contexts, and other related topics. His books include Deciding for Others: The Ethics of Surrogate Decision-Making (with Allen E. Buchanan, 1989), Life and Death: Philosophical Essays in Biomedical Ethics (1993), and From Chance to Choice: Genetics and Justice (with Allen E. Buchanan, Norman Daniels, and Daniel Wikler, 2000).

During his time at Harvard he held a number of positions, including director of Harvard Medical School’s Division of Medical Ethics and director of the Harvard University Program in Ethics and Health. Prior to that, Professor Brock was a member of the Department of Clinical Bioethics at the National Institutes of Health, and before that, he was professor of philosophy and biomedical ethics at Brown University and director of its Center for Biomedical Ethics. He earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University and his B.A., in economics, from Cornell University.

In addition to his work at universities and research centers, Professor Brock frequently lent his expertise to government institutions and non-profit organizations, including the President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine (1981-82), the Ethics Working Group of the Clinton Task Force on National Health Reform (1993), the Office of Technology Assessment of the U.S. Congress, the Institute of Medicine, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, and the World Health Organization.

Professor Brock served as President of the American Association of Bioethics and was a founding Board Member of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities. In 2018, he was awarded the Henry Knowles Beecher Award from The Hastings Center, where he was a longtime fellow. The award honors those who have made a “lifetime contribution to ethics and the life sciences and whose careers have been devoted to excellence in scholarship, research, and ethical inquiry.”

The post Dan W. Brock (1937-2020) appeared first on Daily Nous.

Climate Change Is Pass Fail

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 23/09/2020 - 4:18pm in

Although Joe Biden’s website hat-tips the Green New Deal, he is opposed to it. Instead, he wants to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The problem is, scientists project the end of human civilization by 2050. So it’s a moot point. The environment is pass-fail. Incrementalism is doomed.

Amélie Oksenberg Rorty (1932-2020)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 21/09/2020 - 10:16pm in



Amélie Oksenberg Rorty, a philosopher known for her work in moral psychology and ethics, has died.

Professor Rorty wrote about a range of issues in moral philosophy, including character, identity, the emotions, self-knowledge and self-deception, and weakness of will, as well as on many figures in the history of philosophy, such as Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Spinoza, Rousseau, and others. Some of her essays are collected in the volume, Mind in Action. You can learn more about her work here.

Professor Rorty taught at many institutions over the course of her career, including Harvard University, Boston University, Rutgers University, Brandeis University, Yale University, Mt. Holyoke College, and Wheaton College. She earned her Ph.D. from Yale and was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago.

An appreciation of the complexity of the human condition was a hallmark of her work. Consider the following, from her 1994 essay, “User-Friendly Self-Deception“:

We cannot avoid self-deception. Even open-eyed ambivalence is subject to the self-deceived conviction that although we are conflicted, the appropriate attitude will emerge in the right way at the right time. But we should not wish to do without the active, self-induced illusions that sustain us. Nor can we do without second order denials that they are illusions, the second order and regressive strategies that we self-deceptively believe rationalize our various self-deceptive activities. The question is: how can we sustain the illusions essential to ordinary life, without becoming self-damaging idiots?…

In evaluating the self-deception of our friends and enemies, in retrospectively gauging our own, we are directed by judgments about the merits of the ends it serves, as well as judgments about whether those ends could have been better served by other means. In making such evaluations, we need to think laterally as well as linearly, systematically as well as episodically. We need to consider the global effects of all our epistemic and psychological activities—their addictive qualities as well as their immediate benefits. When they are successful, psychological and intellectual activities typically tend to become rapidly entrenched, ramified and generalized.

But we have very little latitude in monitoring our psychological activities, and still less in forming them. Our epistemological strategies become habitual before we are aware of their patterns and consequences. As philosophers, the best thing we can do about self-deception is what we should do about our other psychological and intellectual activities: engage ourselves in the task of understanding the minute details of its operations. Since we are highly susceptible to socially induced self-deception, the wisest practical course is to be very careful about the company we keep. But it is no easy task to determine where our best protection lies. On the one hand, prudence counsels avoiding the company of charismatic rhetoricians who might mislead us. On the other hand, it is not easy to identify epistemic seducers, particularly when we benefit from hospitality to a wide range of opinions, each with a distinctive critical perspective on our favourite illusions.

Unfortunately self-deception is just the thing that prevents us from seeking its best therapy: it does not know when to expand, and when to limit its epistemological company. Fortunately, we have many other kinds of reasons for being astute about the company we keep. With luck, a canny self-deceiver’s other psychological and intellectual habits—a taste for astringency and a distrust of hypocrisy, for instance—can prevent the wild imperialistic tendencies of self-deception from becoming entrenched and ramified.

But that is a matter of luck; and as we know, ambivalence is the best attitude towards luck.

She died on September 18th.

The post Amélie Oksenberg Rorty (1932-2020) appeared first on Daily Nous.

Jeffrie Murphy (1940-2020)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 18/09/2020 - 9:53pm in



Jeffrie G. Murphy, Regents Professor of Law, Philosophy and Religious Studies at Arizona State University (ASU), has died.

Professor Murphy was highly regarded for his work in philosophy of law and related areas. His books include Punishment and the Moral Emotions: Essays on Law, Morality, and Religion (2012), Getting Even: Forgiveness and its Limits (2003), Forgiveness and Mercy (with Jean Hampton, 1988), and the well-known text, The Philosophy of Law: An Introduction to Jurisprudence (with Jules Colemman, 1984), among others. You can learn more about his research here and here.

Professor Murphy joined the ASU’s Department of Philosophy in 1981, initially as chair. He became a professor of law at the university in 1987. He also maintained affiliations with the university’s religious studies faculty and its School of Social Transformation. Prior to his arrival at ASU, he was professor of philosophy for a decade at the University of Arizona, and before that, at the University of Minnesota. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Rochester and was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University.

ASU has published a memorial notice here.

The post Jeffrie Murphy (1940-2020) appeared first on Daily Nous.

Devon Belcher (1967-2020)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 18/09/2020 - 9:53pm in



Devon Belcher, who until recently was associate professor of philosophy at Oglethorpe University, has died.

(The following memorial notice was authored by Nathan Nobis of Morehouse College)

Dr. Devon Belcher passed away on Monday, September 14, 2020. Until recently, he taught at Oglethorpe University, in Atlanta, Georgia. He taught in philosophy and in their core humanities program since 2008, beginning as an Assistant Professor and then as a tenured Associate Professor.

Dr. Belcher earned a B.A. in Philosophy from Reed College and his Ph.D. from the University of Colorado in 2005 with a dissertation “On Words: An Essay on Beliefs, Belief Attributions, and the Ontology of Words.”

In 2013, he won his University’s Award for Meritorious Teaching. He taught and inspired students to love logic, the more technical aspects of philosophy of language and metaphysics, as well as the classics of literature and the history of science. He saw students as equals in terms of their being honest, sincere, and dedicated truth-seekers, earning their admiration and respect and, with many, their friendship and love.

Devon was a unique person, with a larger than life personality. He described learning philosophy as “learning to piss people off,” loved heavy metal music, and had a unique fascination with squirrels, pirates, and Norse mythology and Vikings. These traits endeared him to many and, like Socrates, repelled him from others.

The post Devon Belcher (1967-2020) appeared first on Daily Nous.

Philippe Mongin (1950-2020)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 09/09/2020 - 11:03pm in


death, Economics

Economist and philosopher Philippe Mongin died last month.

Dr. Mongin worked on a range of subject in economics and philosophy, including rationality, social choice theory, welfare economics, game theoretic approaches to history, interpersonal comparisons of utility, and methods and progress in economics.

Dr. Mongin was a professor at HEC Paris since 2006. Prior to that, he was at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). Over the course of his career, he held visiting appointments at various institutions around the world.

You can read more about the work and life of this “towering figure at the intersection of economics and philosophy” in this obituary by Marc Fleurbaey in Social Choice and Welfare and this obituary by Annie L. Cot written for the Society for the History of Economics.

(via Jake Nebel)

The post Philippe Mongin (1950-2020) appeared first on Daily Nous.

Andrea Tschemplik (1961-2020)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 08/09/2020 - 11:18pm in



Andrea Tschemplik, associate professor of philosophy at American University, died last month.

Professor Tschemplik worked mainly in Ancient Greek philosophy. Her books include Knowledge and Self-Knowledge in Plato’s Theatetus and a translation of Plato’s Republic. More recently, she worked on a new annotated translation of Kant’s Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. At the time of her unexpected death she was writing a book on the aesthetic dimensions of philosophy titled Plato and Kant: The True, the Good and the Beautiful.

She was a member of the faculty at American University since 2001. She had also taught at Hunter College, Upsala College, Drew University, and George Washington University. She earned her MA in philosophy at Bryn Mawr and her PhD at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

(via Steven Cahn)

The post Andrea Tschemplik (1961-2020) appeared first on Daily Nous.

Karen Warren (1947-2020)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 31/08/2020 - 4:15pm in



Karen J. Warren, emeritus professor of philosophy at Macalester College, has died.

Professor Warren was known for her work in environmental ethics, feminist philosophy, and ecofeminism, as well as her advocacy of the right of the terminally ill to choose the timing of their death. You can learn more about her research here.

Professor Warren started as a professor at Macalester in 1985. Prior to that, she taught at St. Olaf College. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and was an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota. You can learn more about her life, work, and public philosophy here.

The post Karen Warren (1947-2020) appeared first on Daily Nous.