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Sunday, April 25, 2021


It is a lovely spring day here in North Carolina and I have finished my morning walk. I diverted myself during the long slog by recalling some lovely one-liners from the philosophical literature and I thought I might amuse myself and perhaps even amuse you as well by putting  them down in a blog post. Before I do that, however, I should like to offer my heartfelt thanks to those of you who have written truly generous compliments in response to my sometimes rather pathetic musing about the lifecycle and my current place in it. I do not think I could find words to tell you how much these comments meant to me. As I struggle, in Dylan Thomas’s beautiful words, not to go gentle into that good night but to rage, rage against the dying of the light, the thought that I have reached out and touched some of you warms me against the cold.


Now onto happier thoughts. Philosophers are by and large not known for their brevity but from time to time one of them gets off a line that stays in the mind, capturing in a few words a powerful and complex thought. I have some favorites, some of which I have quoted before but the very most favorite of all I think I have never actually quoted here. So let me get started.


I begin, as all philosophers must, with Plato. All of you will I am sure recall his great dialogue, the Gorgias, whose structure interestingly enough is exactly that of Book 1 of the Republic.  After disposing easily enough of Gorgias and Polus, Socrates confronts Callicles, to whom Plato gives some of his strongest arguments and most telling lines. Here is my favorite, delivered by Callicles shortly after he enters the dialogue:


“When I perceive philosophical activity in a young lad, I am pleased; it suits him, I think, and shows that he has good breeding. A boy who does not play with philosophy I regard as illiberal, the chap will never raise himself to any fine or noble action. Whereas, when I see an older man still at his philosophy and showing no sign of giving it up, that one seems to me, Socrates, to need a whipping!… Such a fellow must spend the rest of his life skulking in corners, whispering with two or three little lads, never pronouncing any large, liberal, or meaningful utterance.”


Skulking in corners, whispering with two or three little lads, is surely the greatest description ever given of the profession to which I have devoted my life. Only a philosopher as great as Plato would have the courage to put those words in the mouth of the character who is defending everything that Plato hates.


My second example comes from a text that I have frequently made reference to, the Preface to Kierkegaard’s brilliant short work, Philosophical Fragments. Virtually every line of the brief Preface is worth quoting but I shall restrict myself simply to this passage in which Kierkegaard gives voice to the intense seriousness with which he approaches philosophy:


“But if anyone were to be so polite as to assume that I have an opinion, and if he were to carry his gallantry to the extreme of adopting this opinion because he believed it to be mine, I should have to be very sorry for his politeness, in that it was bestowed upon so unworthy an object, and for his opinion, if he has no other opinion than mine.”


To lighten this post a bit after that desperately serious text, let me just mention a delicious question that appeared many decades ago on the Moral Sciences Tripos at Cambridge University. A few words are required for those of you too young to remember what epistemologists were fussing about 70 years ago. The centuries – long debate between the rationalists and the empiricists had at long last come down to a question of the role in empirical knowledge of something called sense data reports, which were supposed to be descriptions of the sensory perceptions on which, according to the epistemologists, all knowledge is based. Because it was widely believed at that time that each of us is unable actually to know what is in another’s mind, a good deal of ink was spilled (this was before computers) on the question whether there could be a private language in which sense experience would be described by the person who actually had that experience but who could not successfully communicate the experience to others. Wittgenstein blew up that debate with the argument that there could not be a private language and so theorists of knowledge moved on to other questions. Roughly at that time, some wit making up the final examination for Cambridge University undergraduate philosophy students came up with an examination question that captured the whole complicated kerfuffle in four words. His question was: “What were sense data?”


That is the ultimate inside joke.


Now on to my all-time favorite. It comes from a work published 370 years ago, the Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. Chapter VI of Part One has the rather elaborate title “Of the Interior Beginnings of Voluntary Motions; Commonly Called the Passions; And the Speeches by Which They Are Expressed.” The entire nine page chapter is well worth quoting but I shall restrict myself to my favorite nineteen words, which in scarcely more than two lines dispose for all time of the endless debates about what should be considered genuine faith and what a mere cult. I conclude this post with these words, which I have loved since reading them almost 70 years ago:


“Fear of power invisible, feigned by the mind, or imagined from tales publicly allowed, RELIGION; not allowed, SUPERSTITION.”




David Zimmerman said...

I suspect that there will be lots of comments... offering up favourite philosophical zingers.

So, let me start with, a well-known and oft-recounted, one from a philosophy Professor Wolff knew well, Sidney Morgenbesser.

In response to [I think] J.L. Austin's claim that there was no language that expressed disagreement with a double positive, Morgenbesser was heard to reply: "Yeh, yeh."

Ok, now let's hear some other old chestnuts.

marcel proust said...

First! (Just one of the may internet traditions)

marcel proust said...

Darn you David Zimmerman! (Also "may" should 'a' been "many")

s. wallerstein said...

With reference to the quote from Callicles, a friend of mine once commented that I spent my life thinking about questions and issues that no one else over age 18 bothered about. I'm not a philosopher by the way.

David Palmeter said...

Another from Morgenbesser: "The trouble with pragmatism is that it's completely useless."

David Zimmerman said...

What does your first message mean, Mr Proust?

Michael said...

"I am sitting with a philosopher in the garden; he says again and again 'I know that that's a tree', pointing to a tree that is near us. Someone else arrives and hears this, and I tell him: 'This fellow isn't insane. We are only doing philosophy.'" (Wittgenstein)

Also, can anyone track down that line from Peirce, where (to paraphrase clumsily) he's amused that someone thought to criticize him for not being very confident in his opinions?

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

"A serious philosophical argument cannot be based on a metaphorical premise."

David Zimmerman said...

Do intuition pumps count as metaphors?

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

There is this little ditty from John Barth’s, The Sot Weed Factor (arguably the funniest book ever written).

Old Plato saw both Mind and Matter,
Tom Hobbes, naught but the latter.
Now poor Tom’s soul doth fry in Hell,
Shrugs God, “Tis immaterial.”

John Rapko said...

Some from memory, so possibly mis-remembered, apocryphal and/or fictitious:

An alternative formulation by Morgenbesser: 'Pragmatism is true but it doesn't work.'
--Someone: 'Any philosophy that can be put in a nutshell belongs there.'
--Georg Luk√°cs, reflecting upon his having been arrested after the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolution: 'Kafka was a realist.'
--Colleague to Heidegger, after his stint as a university rector:'Back from Syracuse?'
--Someone to Samuel Johnson: 'But surely, Sir, education aids the spread of ideas.' Johnson: 'Ideas, Sir, are spread by contagion, not education.'

David Zimmerman said...

Sort of philosophical:

The French query: "That is all very well in practice, but does it work in theory?"

marcel proust said...

David Palmeter: When blogs were not totally new but still trendy (maybe 15-18 years ago), it was in some quarters considered a minor achievement to be the first to comment on a new blog post. There was a period when it was not uncommon to see "First!" as the entirety of the first comment. Occasionally I enjoy reliving those halcyon days, but "First!" doesn't work quite so well as the second comment: thus my second comment above.

marcel proust said...

Back to zingers. In his own lifetime, Adam Smith was considered a "moral philosopher" so I fell justified in entering the following into the lists:

The late resolution of the Quakers in Pennsylvania to set at liberty all their [N]egro slaves, may satisfy us that their number cannot be very great.

(I pair this in my mind with the near contemporaneous zinger of that non-philosopher, Samuel Johnson: "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?")

Mike said...

One of my favorites from Hobbes comes later in Leviathan. I need to paraphrase since I don't have a copy handy, but he draws an extended analogy between the Catholic church and the kingdom of fairies in English folk tales, and wraps it up with a a line like "The fairies do not take wives but lay with many women. The priests also do not take wives."

s. wallerstein said...

How about Jean Paul Sartre?

"Never were we freer than under the German occupation".

LFC said...

s. wallerstein

might I suggest that what Sartre actually meant was that "never did I [J-P Sartre] feel freer than under the German occupation," b.c even though he was a prisoner he was able to write etc. and I don't know enough about his bio, but I guess he found that paradoxically liberating. Or maybe he meant that the Resistance was a supreme exercise of freedom -- whatever.

However, the fact is that only a minority were active in the Resistance and to suggest that "we" (as in "all the French") were "never freer than under the German occupation" is: (a) nonsense, (b) a piece of romantic and inflated rhetoric and/or (c) probably both.

I think it's perhaps not an accident (if I may use that phrase) that Sartre's political judgments were sometimes questionable, to put it sort of charitably.

But then this isn't the only thing you and I do not see eye to eye on...

s. wallerstein said...

Sartre is asking us to think a bit about what freedom is.

I lived through 11 years of the 17 year Pinochet dictatorship in Chile and I might say that we in Chile were never freer than under Pinochet.

Nietzsche says (Twilight of the Idols) in his discussion of freedom that the free man is a warrior. He doesn't mean that the free man (or woman) is a soldier, but that freedom is struggle, a struggle against an oppressive system and against our own tendency, that of all or almost all of us, to find a spiritual rut and to inhabit that rut.

As for Sartre's political judgments I don't find them any more questionable than most people's.

David Zimmerman said...

I have a less flattering interpretation of this most puzzling remark of JP Sartre about the freedom afforded under the occupation....

A central feature of Sartre's metaphysics [if that is the term] of the self [if that is the term] is the distinction between "being-for-itself" and "being-in-itself"--- alternatively, "transcendence" and "facticity."

The former is the sphere of [more-or-less] the body, the latter of [more-or-less the rest, i.e. consciousness and the like].

His idea--- if I understand it at all--- is that genuine [one of his favourite words] freedom is to be secured only in the former realm [being-in-itself or transcendence]....

That idea would leave it open that a being-in-itself or transcendence might enjoy genuine freedom even if its [hers? his?] facticity [say, its, hers or his] body in the Paris of Sartre's neighbourhood of Montparnesse from 1940-45] was under Nazi occupation.

Not a bad interpretation, if I do say so myself....

But pretty repellent, nonetheless

I await comments from those who know more about Sartre than I do.

David Zimmerman said...

Sorry... I inverted the "former" and "latter" in the third paragraph of the comment.

The former of the previous line: Being-in-itself and "facticity".... The latter being-for-itself" and "transcendence"

Damn.... These Sartrean distinctions.

s. wallerstein said...

Sorry, that's not what he means.

The words are the opening lines of an essay "Paris Alive", which is available online. Read it, it's free.

David Zimmerman said...

So, S. Wallenstein.... Let me ask.

What could the estimable J-P Sartre possibly mean-- sensibly mean-- by saying that he has never been so free as he has been under the Nazi [emphasis Nazi] Occupation?

Please provide us with the reference...... I will look it up... with your assistance.

But, I have to say, I still won't believe him there, whatever he says.

He lived for 4-5 years under Nazi....... Nazi..... Occupation.

I'd much rather attribute his absurd [alert: existentialist] term to his metaphysics than to anything else.

David Zimmerman said...

Oy, bloody vey:

Here are the opening lines of "Paris Alive":

The article, his first published in America, begins with a contradiction.

"Never were we freer than under the German occupation. We had lost all our rights, and first of all our right to speak. They insulted us to our faces. ... They deported us en masse. ... And because of all this we were free."

For Sartre, who lived in Paris during the war*, the courage to resist suffering was "the secret of a man." But the perils of the Resistance were to be shared:

"And that is why the Resistance was a true democracy; for the soldier, as for his superior, the same danger, the same loneliness, the same responsibility, the same absolute freedom within the discipline."

Sir..... Tell me, please, how "the courage to resist," and how "the perils of the Resistance were to be shared" ... add up to anything worth calling freedom, much less absolute freedom. Struggle, yes, but not freedom.

Sorry, but this is just Sartre at his most rhetorically reckless.

He did a lot of that... But we don't have to follow him.

s. wallerstein said...

Sure, you don't have to follow him.

Professor Wolff asked for catchy lines from philosophers. I sent one from Sartre.

From what you, David Z, say above, you're not fond of French thinkers. I am.

Maybe you could think of Sartre's lines as something similar to "It's forbidden to forbid" from Paris, May 1968. Yes, it's self-contradictory, but it inspires lots of people and it makes some of us think, maybe not you.

As I said in my response to LFC, I did live through the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, not as bad as Nazi Germany to be sure, and I did participate in what might be called "the resistance" to the dictatorship and those lines of Sartre speak to me.

"Free" in the sense of having to make constant decisions about what matters to one, with a certain risk (I don't believe that I risked my life, but others who had the same experience as I did do believe that they risked their lives), in the sense of having to choose what one's real values are, not one's theoretical values or values to be proclaimed in twitter. You may not call that "freedom". Sartre does and I will too having living that situation (one of Sartre's favorite words) myself.

LFC said...

I respect s.w.'s personal participation in the resistance to Pinochet, and s.w. is free to admire whatever speaks to him.

It might be interesting to get other perspectives. I myself, as someone who did not live through it or anything comparable, wonder how widely this Sartrean view of the Resistance was shared by those in it. I don't know. But there are other accounts out there, obviously. The noted historian Marc Bloch, just to take one example, who was in the Resistance and was executed by the Nazis, perhaps had a different view than Sartre's. (Or Simone Weill maybe?)

A lot of people who were partisans (in the WW2 sense of that word), guerrilla fighters or otherwise in the resistance in various countries (and including in ghettos and camps) lost their lives obviously. Some of them are well known, like Bloch or, say, Frank Thompson (E.P. Thompson's brother) who was killed in Yugoslavia. Many are known only to specialists in the period or not known at all. Sartre's take on it has heightened visibility b.c he was a writer, just as the perspective of those writers who were involved say in the Spanish civil war has survived. But one might do well to remember that the resistance in various countries was largely driven by a lot of people who were not philosophers or writers and never published a word.

Achim Kriechel (A.K.) said...

Sartre contrasts freedom with a situation in which the question of the legitimacy of power can be answered perfectly clearly and unambiguously. And this sentence was dynamite in a country where the question of collaboration was as traumatic as in France after the war and after Vichy. He could also have said: We were free, but did we seize freedom?

Sartre does not say: The Jews were never freer than in Auschwitz.

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

DZ, if I recall correctly, the line about metaphorical premises and philosophical arguments is followed just a few pages later with the ditty about the six consciousnesses of one guy reading the six words of a six word sentence and the six consciousnesses of six guys reading one word each, which certainly seems like something that one could easily call an intuition pump. (Btw, Kant's Theory of Mental Activity, p. 101....) In the case at hand, though, the recitation about the readers is one of the metaphors that needs a literal account. Although an account of synthesis is the goal, the parts about metaphors and allegories zing by my lights. Is an intuition pump a metaphor? Sometimes an intuition pump is an allegory. The name of the intuition pump is a metaphor, but it may be that an intuition pump is not a metaphor. I initially thought that it could be some kind of as yet little understood cognitive mechanism, but such mechanisms often make themselves known via language, so maybe they are figures of speech?

jeffrey g kessen said...

Wittgenstein: "The trouble with Freddie Ayer is that he's clever ALL the time." Speaking of being clever all the time, let's not forget Jerry Fodor--- though his clarity and wit, unlike Ayer's, almost always carries the philosophical day. One of the few rivals of Morgenbesser.

David Zimmerman said...

No more zingers?

Very disappointing. I was so looking forward to them.

LFC said...

Since Machiavelli was brought up by M. Llenos in the other thread, I'll offer one of my favorite lines from The Prince, not perhaps a "zinger," but anyway: "Everyone sees how you appear, few touch what you are...." (chap. 18; H. Mansfield trans.)

jeffrey g kessen said...

Here's a zinger---well, it zinged me anyway. Last year I sent an e-mail to a certain French philosopher, asking him about a particular point in one of his latest essays. Since I genuinely respected this philosopher/cognitive scientist, I put a good deal of effort into crafting my inquiry. His response: "How dare you propose to me such an idiotic question." After re-reading my e-mail, I respect him still.

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